Revisiting January 6

Officer Sicknick's death and media narratives. Also: Wokeness at Planned Parenthood.

The Trumpist right and the counter-establishment left scored a major victory in the narrative wars Monday when it was reported that Capitol Hill police officer Brian Sicknick, said earlier to have died from injuries sustained in clashes with January 6 rioters, had actually died of natural causes (a stroke). The manner of the 42-year-old police officer’s death had long been a point of contention in polemics about the storming of the Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump when Congress was in the process of certifying Joe Biden’s election victory. No one was more triumphant than maverick leftist Glenn Greenwald, who had taken his lumps for “Sicknick trutherism” in February for questioning whether Sicknick was murdered. Greenwald went on Tucker Carlson’s show to proclaim his vindication and blast the media for “exploiting” Sicknick’s death.

Other usual suspects were also on hand.

As one of the many journalists who were wrong about Sicknick’s death (and as someone who has been anti-Greenwald since 2008 when we clashed over the Russian invasion of Georgia), I am quite willing to eat crow. Yes, I have been in Twitter skirmishes in which I scoffed at people who argued that Sicknick probably wasn’t murdered. For what it’s worth, I still think it’s quite likely that the intense stress he experienced during hand-to-hand combat with the rioters was related to the fact that he suffered the first of two strokes about seven hours later. (Anger, fear and other negative emotions are strongly linked to strokes, though the effect most commonly occurred within two hours of the trigger.) The coincidence seems a stretch, especially given that Sicknick was outside the typical age range for strokes and not overweight. Since an autopsy cannot show whether a stroke was triggered by stress or anger, we’ll never know. The medical examiner did say that “all that transpired played a role in his condition.” Legally, however, it would be nearly impossible to bring felony murder charges against any of the rioters who attacked Sicknick. The claim that the rioters “murdered a cop” is false.

Does this mean Greenwald et al. are vindicated?

For the record, I have found myself agreeing recently with Greenwald’s criticism of media groupthink. There’s a good case to be made that the media should have been more skeptical of the official version of Sicknick’s death. But Greenwald’s sweeping claim that the media knowingly exploited Sicknick and lied about his death because it fit their narrative of the pro-Trump rioters as a dangerous horde is itself a self-serving narrative.

For one thing, Greenwald himself fudges the facts: his latest article says that Sicknick had two strokes “the following day” after his encounter with the rioters. (In fact, the first was on the same day, about seven and a half hours later.)

For another, while Greenwald castigates the media, he elides the fact that two official statements released shortly after the riot—from the U.S. Capitol Police on January 7 and from the Trump Justice Department on January 8stated unambiguously that Sicknick had died from injuries sustained in the clash with the rioters. (The January 8 statement from acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said that Sicknick “succumbed last night to the injuries he suffered defending the U.S. Capitol, against the violent mob who stormed it on January 6th.”) Yet neither of Greenwald’s two articles on the subject mentions these statements; instead, he suggests that media reports of Sicknick’s death at the hands of the rioters relied on speculation and anonymous sources. Indeed, in the February 16 article, Greenwald states outright: “The only basis were the two original New York Times articles asserting that this happened based on the claim of anonymous law enforcement officials.”

As we can see, this is false. The only thing that apparently came from those anonymous sources was the claim that Sicknick was struck in the head with a fire extinguisher.

(This claim, by the way, may have been based on video footage of a different Capitol Hill cop being hit in the head with a fire extinguisher—though it is worth noting that in that incident, the officer was not beaten on the head with a fire extinguisher wielded as a club or a bludgeon, but was struck with a fire extinguisher that was thrown by a rioter and bounced off his helmet.)

There is no question that many people, including some prominent journalists such as Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff and NBC News’ Richard Engel, engaged in emotionally driven hyperbole, claiming on Twitter that Sicknick was “clubbed to death” by pro-Trump rioters. But Greenwald throws in some fact-bending hyperbole of his own when he writes:

So The New York Times on January 8 published an emotionally gut-wrenching but complete fiction that never had any evidence — that Officer Sicknick's skull was savagely bashed in with a fire extinguisher by a pro-Trump mob until he died.

Here’s what the Times article actually says:

The circumstances surrounding Mr. Sicknick's death were not immediately clear, and the Capitol Police said only that he had “passed away due to injuries sustained while on duty.” At some point in the chaos — with the mob rampaging through the halls of Congress while lawmakers were forced to hide under their desks — he was struck with a fire extinguisher, according to two law enforcement officials.

“He returned to his division office and collapsed,” the Capitol Police said in the statement. “He was taken to a local hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries.”

A person with his skull “savagely bashed in” generally does not return to his office afterwards, so Greenwald’s description of the Times account seems as off the mark as the tweets about Sicknick being “clubbed to death.” It is also worth stressing, once again, that the Times wasn’t making anything up and was citing not only anonymous law enforcement officials, but the official Capitol Police statement on Sicknick’s death.

Meanwhile, Greenwald is still praising Revolver News—a website run by one Darren Beattie, who was fired as a Trump White House speechwriter in 2018 after getting caught at a white nationalist hangout—for being the first media outlet to seriously challenge the mainstream narrative of Sicknick’s murder. Having caught a fair amount of flak for citing the Revolver article in his own February 16 critique of the coverage of Sicknick’s death, he obviously feels vindicated. But the fact that both Revolver and Greenwald turned out to be partially correct about Sicknick doesn’t change the fact that Greenwald’s earlier piece offered an absurdly sanitized description of Revolver (a “relatively new outlet”), or that the Revolver piece offered an even more absurdly sanitized account of the riot:

a largely tourist crowd that was let into the building by policestayed inside the velvet ropes, seemed at least partly there out of confusion, for social media clout, or just for the memes, and that even the New York Times conceded caused limited property damage.

Greenwald, it should be said, doesn’t go nearly as far as Beattie in (pardon the expression) whitewashing the January 6 riot. But both the pro-Trumpists and the maverick leftists, for different reasons, are unquestionably downplaying the seriousness of the attack. Greenwald at least acknowledges that it was a “politically motivated riot” and “a dangerous episode” (“Any time force or violence is introduced into what ought to be the peaceful resolution of political conflicts, it should be lamented and condemned”).

Greenwald’s new buddy Tucker Carlson, on the other hand, now basically takes the position that it was a peaceful protest. In his April 7 monologue, he argued that the rioters were being persecuted because they came from “unfashionable zip codes,” had “dangerous ideas” and “the Constitution, and something called their rights,” and “insisted … that the last election wasn’t entirely fair.” He even endorsed the rioters’ own claim that they had every right to be in the Capitol because it was “their house.” And he ridiculed the idea that they committed acts of violence.

But there’s plenty of footage showing violence by the Capitol Hill mob. Once officer was dragged down the stairs and beaten with flagpoles. One screamed with pain while crushed against a metal door; this officer later said that he was beaten with his own baton and that the rioters tried to gouge his eyes out. One got a concussion after being hit in the head with a skateboard. Altogether, about 140 police officers suffered injuries that day, ranging from “bruises and lacerations” to burns, fractures, and concussions.

Yes, some Democratic rhetoric about the “insurrection” has relied heavily on hyperbole and speculation—e.g., the idea that the rioters had specific plans to capture and execute members of Congress and government officials. (While there was such chatter on some pro-Trump forums, there is no evidence that any of it came from actual rioters or involved actual plans of actions; for all we know, the posters could have been trolls or mentally disturbed basement dwellers.) But the reality is bad enough. A large mob, including some organized militias that prepared in advance for violence, descended on the Capitol, attacked and injured dozens of cops, and forced lawmakers and the vice president of the United States to run and hide for their safety, all in an attempt to disrupt the certification of the presidential election and in the hope of preventing the transition of power. If that’s not an “attack on democracy,” what is it?

Yes, the idea that they “murdered a cop” added some emotional charge to the narrative. And yes, this narrative was arguably hypocritical coming from many people who show very little concern about the hundreds of law enforcement officers injured (400 in New York City alone) in last summer’s riots linked to racial justice protests. But, as usual, two wrongs don’t make a right. Hyperbole and bad narratives from the mainstream left don’t excuse the same from its critics.

Planned Parenthood Cancels Itself?

For the latest in the Annals of Wokeness, check out the April 17 New York Times op-ed from Planned Parenthood President and CEO Alexis McGill Johnson mea culpa-ing Margaret Sanger.

Writes Johnson:

Up until now, Planned Parenthood has failed to own the impact of our founder’s actions. We have defended Sanger as a protector of bodily autonomy and self-determination, while excusing her association with white supremacist groups and eugenics as an unfortunate “product of her time.” Until recently, we have hidden behind the assertion that her beliefs were the norm for people of her class and era, always being sure to name her work alongside that of W.E.B. Dubois and other Black freedom fighters.

While Johnson acknowledges that Sanger “eventually distanced herself from the eugenics movement because of its hard turn to explicit racism,” she notes that the founder of Planned Parenthood still supported the 1927 Supreme Court ruling permitting sterilization of the mentally unfit, as well as birth control pill trials conducted in Puerto Rico where the subjects did not fully understand the risk or the experimental nature of the drugs they were given.

According to Johnson:

We don’t know what was in Sanger’s heart, and we don’t need to in order to condemn her harmful choices. What we have is a history of focusing on white womanhood relentlessly. Whether our founder was a racist is not a simple yes or no question. Our reckoning is understanding her full legacy, and its impact. Our reckoning is the work that comes next. …

We will no longer make excuses or apologize for Margaret Sanger’s actions. But we can’t simply call her racist, scrub her from our history, and move on. We must examine how we have perpetuated her harms over the last century — as an organization, an institution, and as individuals.

Johnson ruefully acknowledges that Planned Parenthood has sometimes acted like “organizational Karens”:

By privileging whiteness, we’ve contributed to America harming Black women and other women of color. And when we focus too narrowly on “women’s health,” we have excluded trans and nonbinary people.

As we face relentless attacks on our ability to keep providing sexual and reproductive health care, including abortion, we’ve claimed the mantle of women’s rights, to the exclusion of other causes that women of color and trans people cannot afford to ignore. 

The op-ed concludes with the astonishing declaration that “Margaret Sanger harmed generations with her beliefs” and that Planned Parenthood must “heal those harms.”

I don’t even know where to begin. Unless one opposes abortion and/or birth control, how have “generations” been harmed by Sanger’s beliefs, given that she herself disavowed her association with racism and racists? She certainly deserves criticism for that association, including her very ill-considered decision to speak to a women’s Ku Klux Klan group in New Jersey in 1927 and her support the same year for Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court decision permitting states to sterilize people deemed mentally or physically unfit. That decision resulted in some terrible abuses; some 70,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized, though a subsequent 1942 ruling curbed the practice and it was essentially abandoned by 1963. But it’s doubtful that Sanger’s support played a major role in any of this; there is no record, for instance, of her testifying in support of any compulsory sterilization laws.

The article’s convoluted language also glides over the fact that Sanger worked with prominent black activists—W.E.B. Dubois, Adam Clayton Powell, Mary McLeod Bethune—to promote birth control in the black community (the “Negro Project”). Yes, some creepy language about racial “betterment” was used; at the time, it was also routinely used about white populations. The idea was that the black community would be uplifted if women and men had more control over their reproduction and if women in particular could delay childbearing for better education and jobs. And yes, this project was probably also supported by some people who wanted to curb black fertility. But unless we want to believe that DuBois, Powell, and Bethune were chumps fooled into cooperating with a cannily racist white woman, Sanger’s work on this project should be regarded, on balance, as a genuine effort to do good, and not by playing “white savior” but by partnering with black leaders. (Ironically, Sanger’s right-wing detractors such as the Family Research Council have long used this work against her, pulling out of context her line in a letter to philanthropist Clarence Gamble: “We don’t want the word to get out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.” But Sanger was saying that she didn’t want the project to be misunderstood—and therefore believed that outreach via black clergy was especially important—not that she wanted to hide the project’s true nature.)

There is a difference between coming to terms with Sanger’s actual failings and a vague, jargon-laden indictment for unspecified “harms.” How in the world has Planned Parenthood “privilege[d] whiteness”? Its clinics have been disproportionately located in or near black and Hispanic neighborhoods because they primarily serve low-income women—offering not only abortion but contraception, screening and care for sexually transmitted diseases, and breast and cervical cancer screening. Is Planned Parenthood now endorsing the notion, long promoted by anti-abortion crusaders like James O’Keefe and Lila Rose, that its services to minority communities amount to genocide via abortion? The apology for focusing on women’s health is even more pathetic, especially given that many Planned Parenthood clinics have been offering services specifically geared to transgender people (such as hormone treatments) for some time.

There’s little doubt that this formless, breast-beating screed is going to be used by the right to attack Planned Parenthood. Who needs James O’Keefe when woke activists can cause the organization to kneecap itself?

How to do Cultural Change Right

The other day, The Washington Post ran a fascinating piece by Blake Scott Ball, assistant professor of history at Huntingdon College and author of the forthcoming book Charlie Brown's America: The Popular Politics of Peanuts, about how the celebrated cartoon strip got its first black character.

Ball writes that in a moment of cultural turmoil,

[a]n episode from another moment when American society seemed to be tearing apart — 1968 — reminds us activism can begin on the smallest scale, that focusing on popular media can enable changes that spill over and lead to transformation on a larger scale.

Specifically: a Jewish stay-at-home mother and former schoolteacher named Harriet Glickman “allied with Black neighbors and fellow activists … to get Charles Schulz to integrate ‘Peanuts,’ the most read daily comic strip in the United States.” As a result of her efforts—and those of Kenneth C. Kelly, a pioneering black engineer at NASA—Schultz did, in fact, introduce a black character, Franklin, in 1968.

What’s fascinating about this story is how much of it violates all the taboos and precepts of the modern, “woke” version of progressive activism. For one, it appears that what was holding Schultz back from creating a black character was not racism but an early version of worries about “cultural appropriation”:

Personally, Schulz fully supported civil rights. In his work, however, the artist worried that writing a Black character might be patronizing or insensitive. How could he, a White, German American man from Minnesota, accurately express the voice of a Black child, he wondered.

And here’s the story of how Glickman and Kelly went about changing his mind:

Beginning in the spring of 1968, Glickman started writing letters to prominent newspaper cartoonists, including Schulz, whom she had never met. While Glickman had done her best to persuade the artist that an integrated “Peanuts” would be welcomed by both Black and White readers, she thought Kelly, who was Black, would be a more convincing voice.

Kelly wrote to Schulz that he doubted any Black reader would be offended by the White artist introducing a Black character. Yet, Kelly insisted, that even assuming the worst case — that it might offend a few readers — “an accusation of being patronizing would be a small price to pay for the positive results that would accrue.” A Black character in “Peanuts” “would suggest racial amity in a casual day-to-day sense,” something Kelly saw missing in popular media even in 1968.

How shocking. Racial amity? A black man enthusiastically supporting the initiative of a white woman who totally fails to “decenter herself”? The suggestion that offending a few readers is not a big deal? What sort of horrors of colorblindness, white saviorism, erasure, and insensitivity is The Washington Post endorsing here?

Seriously, this is a great story. But I quibble with the headline, which says, “Pressuring pop culture creators can help fight racism in America.” That’s a very 2021 headline, written by some woke staffer who can’t imagine cultural change unless people are browbeaten into it. The story itself is about encouragement and the broadening of horizons, not pressure (as Ball agreed in a Twitter exchange). More of this, please.