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Commentary :: Gender : Media : Police and Prisons : Race
Operation LIPSTICK: A Case Study in Propaganda and Counter Insurgency
13 Mar 2014
Late last month Open Media Boston posted an article titled Antiviolence Activists Join City Officials To Launch MBTA-Wide Ad Campaign. The campaign in question was for Operation LIPSTICK, aka Ladies Involved In Putting a Stop to Inner-City Killings, an organization that is attempting to reduce shootings in neighborhoods of color by convincing women to stop buying guns for felons (who are legally barred from owning firearms). LIPSTICK is an offshoot of a nonprofit group called Citizens for Safety, who describe themselves as "a community coalition working to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and youths without abridging the freedoms of law-abiding Americans." The OMB article is essentially a puff piece. The author, Dave Goodman, expresses some skepticism about the efficacy of the MBTA ad campaign, but none about LIPSTICK or their mission, even claiming that "it’s extremely difficult to question the motivations behind the campaign."

Unfortunately, it's actually pretty easy. Even a cursory look at LIPSTICK's strategy and methods reveals a deeply problematic organization that is likely doing far more harm than good. To see why, read on.
LIPSTICK is essentially in the business of helping enforce Massachusetts' ban on the possession of guns by felons, on the theory that this will reduce the level of gun-related violence in the Boston area. Their approach relies on the tendency of men with felony convictions to use women as straw purchasers of guns, since women are less likely both to have felony records of their own, and to be suspected by police of carrying weapons. LIPSTICK's tactics are patterned on Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the public pressure campaign fronted by women who have lost sons and daughters in accidents caused by inebriated drivers. Similarly, LIPSTICK recruits mothers who have had children killed in shootings to speak at community meetings to exhort women to refrain from buying guns for their boyfriends and other male associates. Their pitch is summarized in this quote from Nancy Robinson, founder of CFS and LIPSTICK, in the OMB article: “So we hear stories, anecdotally, and now the research backs that up, that women often are coerced and pressured and bribed to supply these guns so often used in shootings.” LIPSTICK heavily promotes the idea that women in the gun trade are exploited, strongly implying that many of them have little choice but to procure weapons for abusive partners. We will return to the "coercion, pressure and bribery" in a minute, but for now lets see how this approach is being received publicly.

Quite well, as it turns out. OMB's is hardly the only puff piece penned about the organization recently. LIPSTICK's web site lists nine mostly uncritical articles from local and national outlets, and more can be found with a simple Google News search. Likewise local government officials appear to be solidly on board. Boston's brand new mayor Marty Walsh has said nice things about LIPSTICK to the media, the press conference for the ad campaign featured a Boston City Councilor plus two police chiefs and the Suffolk County District Attorney, and the MBTA not only chipped in $1,800 to pay for printing the campaign's posters, but is donating advertising space on their trains. Even the medical community is pitching in. CFS' board of directors includes two researchers from Harvard School of Public Health, a Director of Trauma Services for the Boston Public Health Commission, and a former Deputy Commissioner for the Connecticut Department of Public Health - all there to lend their expertise in epidemiology, with Boston's market for illegal guns standing in as the epidemic. This is a very impressive showing, especially considering LIPSTICK was started only in 2012. Many long standing nonprofits devoted to equally worthy goals would give their eyeteeth for this level of support.

Police and prosecutors have been particularly engaged with LIPSTICK's work. LIPSTICK's statement of purpose reads "Our goal is to create a network of educated, active, engaged, and vocal female leaders who are key partners with law enforcement to keep illegally trafficked guns out of our communities." They're not kidding about the "key partners with law enforcement" part. In addition to the gaggle of cops at the press conference, LIPSTICK works with the US Department of Justice, the Mass. Department of Public Safety (which includes the state police), and the Suffolk County District Attorney's office. The DOJ has even contributed grant money. An obvious question arises of what these authorities are getting in return for their investment of money and time.

To find out, let's begin with this quote from a Boston Magazine article about the press conference: 'Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley referenced several instances where prosecutors were able to close in on a case based on information a female suspect gave them in connection with why they were carrying a weapon. “This is a scenario that has played itself out too many times to count,” he said.' While Conley's speech was presented as an illustration of the problem of straw gun purchases by women, keep in mind that as a prosecutor his profession is "closing in on cases." Presumably he would like to ensure that the above scenario plays itself out in the future as well. LIPSTICK is well positioned to make that happen. According to the Dorchester Reporter an assistant district attorney speaks at most of LIPSTICK's community meetings, which are heavily attended by women who have had loved ones injured or killed in street shootings. The prosecutor is ostensibly there to talk about the potential legal consequences of straw gun purchasing, but the situation obviously provides a good opportunity to gather intelligence and recruit informants. While prosecutors typically don't get involved in a case until after an arrest has been made, they can certainly connect any potential informants they meet with police detectives. How important the DA's office considers this aspect of their involvement to be is unknown, but it's difficult to imagine them turning down incriminating information. In any case, LIPSTICK's coziness with the cops is a slap in the face to communities that have been burdened for years with an oppressive police presence.

Neither LIPSTICK nor the DA's office is on record saying anything about the potential LIPSTICK holds to develop criminal cases. LIPSTICK does however like to talk about the potential for domestic violence against women who make straw gun purchases, as noted above. The problem is the evidence they present is all anecdotal. Coverage of LIPSTICK includes a lot of "We see this all the time..." and "There was this case where..." type quotes, but no studies that focus specifically on domestic violence among gun runners. Are female gun traffickers any more likely to suffer abuse than, say, the partners of car thieves, or those of cops for that matter? If LIPSTICK knows they aren't saying. One gets the distinct impression that as far as they're concerned, abused women who aren't involved in illegal gun dealing are on their own. And even those who are involved aren't offered many choices. They can refuse to continue buying guns for their abusers and face the consequences, or rat them out to the police and be branded as snitches in their communities - or bypass LIPSTICK altogether and attempt to deal with their problem with the aid of family, friends, and Boston's (admittedly inadequate) network of domestic violence shelters. When questioned about related issues for an article in Boston Magazine, David Hemenway, a Harvard School of Public Health researcher and member of CFS' board of directors, responded, in essence, "whatever." Or in his terms, '“It’s not like we’re not interested in the individual, but the focus is on populations.”' Just who, exactly, Hemenway thinks comprises populations was left unexplained.

LIPSTICK's neglect of individuals appears to extend to their financial as well as physical well being. The same Boston Magazine article that quoted Hemenway included statements from a woman going under the pseudonym of Melissa, who spent her teen years as a gun runner and now feels that she was taken advantage of. At first glance Melissa, who recently left an abusive relationship, would appear a perfect fit with LIPSTICK's narrative - until we learn that she stopped selling guns over 13 years ago, while the relationship was apparently a more recent development. More importantly, Melissa's story makes it clear that there is good money to be made in the illegal gun business. '“With guns comes money and the drugs and all the material things,” she says. “I could go around with a real gold ring, a real diamond necklace—things that my peers couldn’t afford.”' It's not just her, either. Melissa also told Boston Magazine that she still knows women that "can earn $1,000 or more for stashing guns in an attic for a local gang." This testimony puts a serious crimp in Robinson's framing of gun dealing women as being coerced and intimidated. Media coverage of LIPSTICK tends to tap dance around this issue, but does concede grudgingly that women often get paid to buy guns. Even Robinson obliquely admitted this in her statement to OMB referencing "bribery." Boston Magazine also let slip that former gun runners like Melissa are not invited to speak in person at LIPSTICK's community meetings (although one is featured in a video they show). It's easy to see why - her story could well prove more of an incentive than a deterrent. Yet LIPSTICK apparently does nothing to help women in Melissa's situation find legal jobs to replace their lost income.

At this point critics will object that something needs to be done, even if it isn't perfect. None of the above should be interpreted to mean that broke-on-broke crime is not a serious problem. True peace however, cannot be imposed from without, it must arise internally from decisions made by the combatants. Witness the gang truce established in Los Angeles in the early nineties, chronicled in Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. There, peace was the result of negotiations between rival gangs who decided for themselves that the benefits of not being shot at outweighed their animosity toward each other. It should be noted that the LA cops did everything they could to sabotage the truce, in spite of the obvious crime reduction benefits it offered, believing that a unified gang community was a threat to their domination of the city. The goal of the police is not to reduce violent crime. As long as violence doesn't significantly affect people with enough power and privilege to damage their budget and public perception, the cops are happy to tolerate it (especially in Boston, where the clearance rate for homicides is an anemic 43%). Violence gives cops an excuse to exist, and, per LA, means that the oppressed are kept busy shooting each other instead of the real enemy. By framing gun violence as a simple function of the availability of firearms, LIPSTICK obscures this fact, and advances an implicit assumption that communities of color are unable to solve their own problems without the aid of white saviors. The propaganda benefits don't end there, either. LIPSTICK focuses solely on civilian shootings in neighborhoods of color, while assiduously ignoring those committed by the police. Thus they are employing the classic liberal conception of nonviolence - that is, that it's perfectly acceptable for the cops to be violent (after all, they're only following orders), but heaven forbid anybody fight back by so much as breaking a window. By collaborating with LIPSTICK police and prosecutors bolster their public stance of "protecting and serving", and appear to be addressing the "problem" of gun violence - all for the price of a few public appearances and a small (for them) amount of money.

Nor do the police have to worry about LIPSTICK accidentally managing to actually reduce gun violence. The comparison of gun running to drunk driving is spurious. There's no money in drunk driving, nobody can earn enough for a diamond necklace by chugging a 40 and taking their car for a spin. Gun running on the other hand, if Melissa is any indication, seems like a fairly lucrative business. In addition to her account we have a 2012 Chicago Sun-Times article about straw gun purchases that cited a study showing almost one quarter of recovered guns used in crimes in the Chicago area were bought by women. The other three quarters would therefore have been purchased by people less susceptible to coercion by domestic partners and therefore more likely to have been paid. This realization moves illicit gun purchases from the realm of epidemiology to that of economics. Reducing the number of non-felons willing to make straw gun purchases might raise the price of illegal guns a little, but as soon as that happens the higher price will attract new participants into the business. From an economic point of view this is the same problem that the "war on drugs" faces - trying to reduce supply rather than demand. It is well documented how ineffective that's been. The apparent cluelessness of LIPSTICK's approach is another indication that their utility to Boston's power structure lies outside their stated mission. For insight into another way this works we turn not to liberal social engineering but to military counter insurgency.

Counter insurgency strategies vary widely in approach and degree of destructiveness, but the variety that concerns us here involves cooptation of segments of the subject population, employing tactics such as planting favorable stories in local media outlets, building minor public works facilities, and generally attempting to win hearts and minds. The goal is to exploit conflicts and divisions among residents in the occupied territory and recruit snitches and collaborators, people who will inform on or even help fight against those resisting occupation. Policing in the US is a near cousin to counter insurgency. Sometimes they even admit it, as in Springfield, MA, where the police department's gang unit tactics are lifted straight from the US occupation of Afghanistan. Brigadier Frank Kitson put the matter succinctly in his counter insurgency classic Low Intensity Warfare. The law, he wrote "should be used as just another weapon in the government's arsenal, and in this case it becomes little more than a propaganda cover for the disposal of unwanted members of the public. For this to happen efficiently, the activities of the legal service have to be tied into the war effort in as discreet a way as possible." In her excellent book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander explains how Kitson's principle is put into practice - by highly selective enforcement of drug and other laws against people of color in order to brand them as criminals, with the support of a concerted propaganda campaign by the corporate media. These "unwanted members of the public" can then be imprisoned, denied government benefits, barred from voting, and occasionally murdered by police, all with complete impunity.

In this context it becomes easier to understand the appeal of LIPSTICK. The image of an abusive black felon who forces his girlfriend to buy guns for him so he doesn't have to risk getting arrested is tailor made to pander to the fears and prejudices of middle class white people, much like Ronald Reagan's Cadillac-driving welfare queen. The domestic violence angle gives liberals an excuse to ignore accusations of racism, and the fact the story is being told by bereaved mothers makes it irresistible to media outlets driven by sensationalism. Even the public health focus contributes to this dynamic by casting "criminals" as an infectious disease. The whole thing is pure PR gold. Boston's 1% doesn't support LIPSTICK because they expect it to achieve its purported goal. They support it because LIPSTICK reinforces one of the narratives that keep them in power.

If LIPSTICK really wanted to do something about domestic violence, they could use their money to open women's shelters, and their community networks to promote them. If they wanted to do something about gun violence the obvious place to start would be with the police, who kill more people with guns than any other organization short of the army. It is estimated that police across the US kill a black man once every 28 hours. If the Crips or Latin Kings were racking up that kind of body count the screams from "progressives" would be deafening, but when the cops do it nobody cares. Citizens for Safety and LIPSTICK don't care either. Tackling root causes is not where the grant money is, or where the favorable media coverage is, or where support from the government is. It's a lot easier and more lucrative to take advantage of systemic racism by promising to take guns away from those scary black people. One expects the corporate media to be cheerleaders for this sort of initiative - that's part of their job description. But it is disappointing to see an independent outlet like Open Media Boston drinking the Kool-Aid. We can only hope it wears off soon.

This work is in the public domain.
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Re: Operation LIPSTICK: A Case Study in Propaganda and Counter Insurgency
16 Mar 2014
This editorial has been reposted on Indybay, since LIPSTICK is reportedly also targeting Oakland.