Journalist Glenn Greenwald, panel of activists discuss political injustices

Thursday, September 27, 2012 | 11:52 p.m. CDT; updated 6:23 p.m. CST, Sunday, November 4, 2012
Glenn Greenwald, a columnist on civil liberties and national security issues for The Guardian, spoke Thursday at the MU School of Law.

COLUMBIA — Room 7 of Hulston Hall was so full Thursday night that associate law professor David Mitchell had to kick people out.

"We may have asked for a bigger room, but we didn't expect such a big turnout," he said.

Q-and-A with Glenn Greenwald

Missourian reporter Sasu Siegelbaum sat down with Glenn Greenwald before his lecture Thursday to ask him a few questions about journalism and law.

Q: How do you feel about citizen journalism and blogging? Do you feel that it's brought about positive changes in journalism in general?

A: Yeah, I think absolutely it has. I guess my own experience is with the window through which I look at those issues because the way I got into journalism was essentially that I had things to say that I didn't think were being said. So one day in 2005, I just spontaneously created my own blog, and in a very short time period, I was able to build up a sizable readership, comparable to mid-sized newspapers. And what made that unique is that I had no constraints of any kind in what I could say, when I could say it, how I could say it. Because of my own blog, I wasn't confronted by any editorial constraints, any newsroom pressures, any orthodoxies or anything like that. 

My only obligation was to keep my level of credibility high with my readers. That gives a real freedom to be able to wander outside of boundaries of respectable, legitimate views as convention dictates they be defined. And then the nature of online journalism has really democratized not just the Internet, but all forms of journalism. By building an audience, I was then able to get hired to write for Salon and now The Guardian. And I was able to demand that as a condition doing it, I have no editorial constraints whatsoever and my independence has remained fully intact. And this has happened to lots of different people in lots of different ways. The big difference for me is that 10 years ago, if you wanted to speak to a reasonable-sized audience, you had to go and work for a major media corporation and succumb to all of the constraints that entails, whereas now if you can find a way to get new readership, you can speak to as big if not a larger audience as you could if you went to work for one of those places without any of those constraints. And that's really opened up new levels of public discourse in the United States and around the world.

Q: In your book ("With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful"), you talk a lot about the unequal application of the law. What are some ways that the issue of elite immunity can be addressed at the policy level and at the individual level? What can we as average citizens do to enforce accountability and equal application of the law towards elites?

A: There's this fascinating article in The New York Times in December 2008, which was the first to signal that Obama had no intention, despite his campaign promises, of allowing investigations into Bush-era crimes, including torture and misleading Congress. One of the things that this article said in passing, was that the reason that presidents, when they get into office, are inclined to block those kinds of investigations of their predecessors was because they then would be unprotected when they leave office because another party could investigate them in retaliation. One of the things that does is create this shield of immunity that cuts across ideological partisan lines where political elites know that if they protect each other, they then will be protected. So it's a class-based privilege. No one in that class has any real interest in subverting that. It's since extended into private-sector elites as we saw in the telecom immunity fight when the nation's largest telecom giants received a say of immunity for their role in the Bush eavesdropping program. They were retroactively immunized by Congress, an extraordinary step for Congress to take, but they did. And then of course the full-scale protection of Wall Street from any kind of legal consequences from the 2008 financial crisis. So there's no possibility of hoping that this will be solved by voting for one or the other parties because they're equally invested in the continuation of this system. So I think that the only way any real change can happen is if citizens can band together. And I think you saw that at the heart of the tea party movement and the Occupy movement for sure. But that never really reached the level of disruption to strike true fear into the heart of political elites, but that's what I think needs to happen for true change to occur.

Hundreds of spectators filled the basement auditorium of MU's School of Law, creating a temporary fire hazard, in order to hear political journalist, best-selling author and former constitutional and civil rights attorney Glenn Greenwald discuss the two-tiered U.S. justice system.

Greenwald, a blogger and columnist for the Guardian of London and formerly, focused on current systematic violations of U.S. constitutional law, specifically referencing the favorable applications of the rule of law toward U.S. political and economic elites. He also referenced the consequences of this unequal application toward minorities, political dissidents and what he called "ordinary" Americans. 

"I don't think it's the case any longer that we violate the rule of law; we repudiate it, especially the political and economic elite," he said. "There's this idea now that people who are sufficiently powerful do not belong in a courtroom because it would be too disruptive. When it comes to ordinary citizens, a completely different universe of rules applies."

Greenwald cited the U.S. government's denial of due process to Muslim Americans, its extra-judicial imprisonment and torture of dissidents in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, its mass imprisonment of minorities, and its harsh treatment of WikiLeaks collaborator and former soldier Bradley Manning as examples of its "bolstering of the climate of fear."

He also dismissed the notion that the coming presidential elections, or any election, could solve such problems because "despite their beliefs, political leaders belong to an intimate class that look out for each other's interests." He referenced former President Gerald Ford's pardoning of Richard Nixon and President Barack Obama's administration's unwillingness to prosecute clearly criminal actions by the Bush administration as examples of affirmations of elite immunity.

The panel discussion, which commenced after Greenwald's 45-minute talk, was intended to localize some of the issues that Greenwald discussed. The panel was headed by four Missouri political activists:

  • Eduardo Crespi, executive director of the Centro Latino and Comedor Popular.
  • Steve Downs, the executive director for the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms and civil liberties attorney.
  • Amany Ragab Hacking, assistant clinical law professor at St. Louis University and co-founder of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
  • Redditt Hudson, former St. Louis Metropolitan police officer and current program associate for eastern Missouri's ACLU.

The panelists' topics included abuses in St. Louis jails, the Muslim community in St. Louis before and after 9/11,  wrongful imprisonment for Muslim Americans and comparison between denial of due process of Muslim Americans and experiences in Argentina during the Dirty War.

The event was co-sponsored by several MU academic departments including the law school, departments of Sociology and History, the Black Studies Program and several local social justice organizations.

Mark Haim, director of Mid-Missouri Peaceworks, said his organization co-sponsored the event in order to educate and empower the citizenry.

"We can't allow ourselves to ignore the violations of our civil liberties that Mr. Greenwald discussed, and we've got to stand in solidarity with our citizens," he said.

While the speakers disproportionally addressed problems facing the country, they each tried to end on a hopeful note, encouraging the audience to not give in to the culture of fear that has emerged from the current political climate and criminal justice system.

"What's so encouraging to me is the fact that so many of you showed up to discuss these problems," Downs said. "We need to keep talking to each other about them and raise awareness of these issues."

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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