United, the Pulitzers and the 'de-accommodation' of America's poor

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Screen grab of a video by Twitter user @JayseDavid showing a passenger being forcibly removed from an overbooked United Airlines flight.

There was kind of a sad sameness to a lot of the news today. There was a shooting at an elementary school in California. A corrupt and hypocritical GOP governor was forced to resign. The New York Times and the Washington Post won Pulitzers. Donald Trump is still the president. Then the online world went bonkers for a story that actually seemed different: A passenger -- a doctor no less -- who was removed violently, with a capital "V," from a United Airlines flight in Chicago on Sunday.

The case went from bad to worse at both United and the Chicago police struggled to explain this ridiculous level of brutality to remove the paying customer who'd been chosen -- randomly, by a computer -- to leave the overbooked flight against his will. The cops said that the roughed-up passenger "fell" -- which rang false to anyone who has at least one eye -- while United's CEO apologized for having to "de-accommodate" the passenger, a new term for "brutality" that I've never heard before. It's clear that airline executives probably wish they'd offered volunteers $10,000 to leave the flight, since the bad publicity may cost them millions.

Twitter on Monday was all-United, all the time -- and it sparked some interesting talk about power, class, and the use of force to protect capitalist operations in this country. Still, it all seemed a tad ironic; this is a city where police officers had been accused of torturing criminal suspects, in addition to several questionable or worse police-involved shootings. Those things have also caused some buzz, but nothing compared to an incident on a pricey domestic flight, involving a medical doctor, recorded and posted by folks on their state-of-the-art smartphones. You had to wonder if the real news here was the brutality of modern-day America getting real enough to finally hit a nerve for the elite professional chattering classes.

When 3 o' clock rolled around, the Twitterati shifted to an annual obsession, the awarding of journalism's Pulitzer Prizes. The awards honored some amazing reporters and writers, from the Post's high-profile pursuer of Trump's charity-scamming and crotch-grabbing, David Fahrenthold, to the crusading editorial writer in some place called Storm Lake, Iowa. These were also the first Pulitzers of the Trump Era, and there had been much speculation about how the prizes would reflect the Great Orange Menace. The answer, Fahrenthold aside, was not so much. Instead, the best journalism of 2016 was driven by exposes of long-standing, institutionalized inequality in America -- of power, wealth, and racial bias.

The most coveted prize, the Public Service Medal, went to the New York Daily News and the news organization ProPublica (or as Sean Spicer likes to call them, "a left-wing blog") for exposing how the New York City cops abused eviction rules to kick people -- specifically, poor people -- out of their homes.

The series of articles by Sarah Ryley detailed a little-known NYPD practice — lawsuits that allow police to ban people from their homes or businesses, without due process, under claims that they are being used for illegal purposes. The measure was initially conceived to push out the sex industry from Times Square.

In her initial analysis Ryley spotted the alarming trend of residents who were not convicted of crimes, and who were even cleared of their charges, but removed from their homes anyway. The cases, roughly 1,000 in New York City each year, happened almost exclusively in communities of color.

Ryley, an investigative reporter at the NY Daily News, wasn't the only writer to see the patterns under the radar screen, that the system was conspiring against the poor. Matthew Desmond also won a Pulitzer, in the General Nonfiction category, for his book: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Desmond lived in a battered trailer and a rooming house to chronicle how eviction policies drive poverty.

"I was shocked to discover that one in eight Milwaukee renters experienced at least one forced move — formal or informal eviction, landlord foreclosure or building condemnation — in the two years prior to being surveyed," Desmond wrote.

In an interview last year with the Journal Sentinel, Desmond said he had expected the loss of a job to be a primary driver for an eventual eviction. "But eviction is a bigger cause of job loss than the other way around." Evictions, in other words, not only perpetuate existing poverty, but also creates new poverty along with a class of displaced urban nomads.

Desmond came to Philadelphia recently to testify at a City Hall hearing aiming to reform eviction practives and rent guidelines here. Strengthening renters' rights is hard, unsexy work -- it will never go viral like a video of a doctor getting dragged off a commercial jet. And yet this is the power imbalance that can make life a living hell for hundreds of thousands of people.

Maybe we can make this sounds a little sexier if we talk like an airline CEO -- because this is the "de-accommodation" of America's poor and of people of color. And it's happening every single day. Thank God for diggers like Sarah Ryley and Matthew Desmond for going way beneath the surface and telling us what's really happening on the ground, as opposed to United's unfriendly skies.

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