Citizen Dicks

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Plain-clothes petty theft prevention and crowd control are two areas of police work that American and Italian citizens have taken it upon themselves to insource, in two interesting recent stories.

From Venice, we have a group called Undistracted Citizens, which doesn't sound very charming until you say it in Italian: Cittadini Non Distratti. The Cittadini work the tourist crowds in the Stockholm of the South, looking for pickpockets, stopping thefts, and staying around to testify against the crooks. There's some reason to believe their efforts may be paying off. Last year, an Interior Ministry report gave partial credit for an eight-year nationwide drop in pickpocketing to "reciprocal collaboration among the citizenry, law enforcement and institutions." (Go here for a briefing on correlation and causation.) Some cops like the group, but the city government has refused to give it official status and support—which is probably a blessing.

The Cittadini enjoy wide popular support and regular praise in the local press (an unofficial Venice Web site nicknamed them the "Guardian Angels of Tourists"). Members won't let newspapers photograph them to avoid alerting pickpockets; still, many strangers know who they are and stop them in the street to convey thanks. Some Venetians phone the Cittadini instead of the police when they spot petty crime. Members refuse thank-you money from would-be victims and bribes from trapped pickpockets desperate to keep out of jail. "You get every proposition imaginable," says Gianni Scocco, a retired longshoreman who says he has declined offers of free drinks, dinner, and promises of special favors from ensnared female pickpockets.

Plainclothes cops like to think they blend right in. Artful dodgers think otherwise. "You can tell right away who's undercover," says a 28-year-old female pickpocket from Bosnia who requested anonymity. (Her hint: Look for the men in jeans, blue T-shirts, running shoes, and fanny packs roaming about with cell phones and indiscreet eyes.) Guessing if a passerby might intervene is next to impossible. After a recent wallet-snatch, a bystander seized her and held on until the uniforms showed up. She went to jail.

Whole story here.

Meanwhile, Ken Schultz sends along this CNN story about the Patriot Guard Riders, who have begun showing up at military funerals to counteract protests from the Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church congregation:

Phelps believes American deaths in Iraq are divine punishment for a country that he says harbors homosexuals. His protesters carry signs thanking God for so-called IEDs—explosives that are a major killer of soldiers in Iraq.

The bikers shield the families of dead soldiers from the protesters, and overshadow the jeers with patriotic chants and a sea of red, white and blue flags.

"The most important thing we can do is let families know that the nation cares," said Don Woodrick, the group's Kentucky captain. "When a total stranger gets on a motorcycle in the middle of winter and drives 300 miles to hold a flag, that makes a powerful statement."

I saw a CNN report on the Guard Riders yesterday, and it reminded me of the movie theater talking constant: When one person is talking and another person yells at him to shut up, the cumulative effect is to double the level of noise, not reduce it. But for the bereaved, I guess even slightly irritating support is better than no support at all. More importantly, the Riders may head off another legislative mistake. As Brian Doherty noted recently, Phelps' movement has prompted 14 states to consider laws to outlaw these kinds of protests. That's what our friends the krauts call a schlechte Verbesserung, Verschlimmbesserung or "bad improvement."

I can't be the only one who years ago assumed Fred Phelps would turn out to be some kind of performance artist pulling a gag, but he seems to be for real. Not even the distilled essence of Danny Hoch and John Leguizamo could invent a detail like that jacket he always wears. It looks almost like Broncos jacket, but the colors are wrong. What is that little logo on the left breast? Anyway, Phelps (who interestingly enough is a West Point washout, according to his bio) is a real guy, no doubt tormented by hellish visions of irresistable beefcake in some nightly Gethsemane we can't even imagine. Better to confront him with chants and off-key singing than with some well intentioned but blunt new law.

Update: Commenter mrdmrd points out that Phelps wears a University of Kansas jacket.

NEXT: Danish Solidarity

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  1. Good for them. I just spent 3 days at Harley-Davidson headquarters and I gotta say, the biker image as “salt of the earth” is well deserved (and I mean that as a compliment).

  2. Patriot Guard Riders only show up at the request of the family having the funeral. So the theater noise analogy doesn’t quite fit.

  3. The Cittadini don’t sound much different from the various chapters of the Guardian Angels who patrol major US cities. And, not surprisingly, they also tend to raise the hackles of certain municipal authorities.

  4. Danny Hoch and John Leguizamo could so invent a detail like the jacket Fred Phelps always wears. Show some respect, for God’s sake!

  5. I read about the Patriot Guard Riders last week, and while I can only imagine the din would be deafening, I give those guys a big thumbs up. Good job. As for Phelps, I find his logic flawed in that he’s protesting members of an organization that actively and fervently bans gay people from joining. Whatever the case, he’s an asshat and his seed needs to be wiped from the face of the Earth. Why doesn’t God smite when you really need him?

  6. Now if those bikers could hitch Phelps and his clan to the back of the bikes and drag them away in a spray of teeth and hellfire, that would be something.

  7. I’m reminded of Greektown, the shopping/restaurant enclave in downtown Detroit. In the mid-nineties, at least, (don’t know what it’s like now, because I haven’t been there in a decade) even in the heart of the most dangerous city in America, Greektown was a very safe place for peaceable people to spend an evening. It was reputed to be a very dangerous place to be a mugger.

    Cops mostly didn’t go there; the local businesses had an informal agreement that they’d take care of security themselves. The city’s response was more-or-less, “Well, try not to kill anybody.”

    How much of Greektown’s fierce reputation was just talk, I can’t say. But I do know from experience that well-dressed couples of any race could spend a very pleasant evening there, only a few hundred yards from other neighborhoods where the white ones would consider themselves lucky to emerge alive even in brightest sunlight.

  8. I can’t be the only one who years ago assumed Fred Phelps would turn out to be some kind of performance artist pulling a gag, but he seems to be for real.

    Weel, you can truly believe in what you’re doing and still be a performance artist. This is why we have titles like “Reverend” and “Congreessman”.

  9. Citizen Dicks

    I was kind of hoping this thread would be about…something else.

  10. i find it’s best to decline the assistance of an organization of italians offering you their protection.

    seriously though – alert, involved, and active citizens have been demonstrated to reduce crime for quite some time. isn’t this the idea behind a strong neighborhood watch program?

    the biker group sounds great as long as they only go at the family’s request. i can imagine such a scene becoming quite a circus and not really securing dignity to a ceremony. i like their hearts though while the likes of phelps and company are just disgusting.

  11. I can?t link to them now because my work firewall has gotten so puritanical that when I searched for ?Homophone vs Homonym? I was told that I was being blocked for my own good from explicit content?.but one wonderful thing on the Westboro Baptist website is their photo gallery of kids? all wearing WBC-trademark, ?God Hates Fags? T shirts.

    The one that I had a lab blow up, print and frame for me is of identical-twin 6-8yr old boys? smiling and hugging, wearing purple colored God Hates Fags shirts. It looks like something David Lynch would have staged. It hurts your brain the longer you look at it. It?s too simultaneous beautiful and innocent and ironic and banal and warped and evil and sad and hilarious at the same time.

  12. Now if those bikers could hitch Phelps and his clan to the back of the bikes and drag them away in a spray of teeth and hellfire, that would be something.

    In the immortal words of Richard Nixon: but that would be wrong.

  13. Fred Phelps is kind of an interesting case. Do some research on him — he’s more of a David Koresh kind of cult leader with hints of violent psychopathy.

    I am amazed that this asshole is still alive, frankly. If he showed up at the funeral for one of my friends or relatives with his little clan, I think some good old fashioned mob violence might be in order.

  14. Fred Phelps is kind of an interesting case. Do some research on him — he’s more of a David Koresh kind of cult leader with hints of violent psychopathy.

    I am amazed that this asshole is still alive, frankly. If he showed up at the funeral for one of my friends or relatives with his little clan, I think some good old fashioned mob violence might be in order.

  15. When one person is talking and another person yells at him to shut up, the cumulative effect is to double the level of noise, not reduce it. But for the bereaved, I guess even slightly irritating support is better than no support at all.

    But if you are denied peace and quiet to mourn your dead soldier son anyway, hearing a bunch of people yelling patriotic slogans is probably a lot better than hearing a bunch of psychopaths screeching that your kid deserved what he got.

  16. What, no shout-outs to the Minutemen patrolling the U.S.-Mexican border?

    (Just checking to see if Lonewhacko still hangs out here)

  17. I have heard rumors that the Phelps crew is a scam to try to provoke assaults so that they can make money suing the people they’ve provoked. I don’t even know whether this is practical, but it’s a possibility to consider.

  18. Hey did you know Reagan’s in hell:

    http://www.godhatesamerica.com/html/Reagan.html

    It seems like it has something to do with Rock Hudson.

    So, Reagan’s in hell, but then so is Mother Teresa:

    http://www.theonion.com/content/node/30076

    All the cool people are goin to hell!

  19. All the cool people are goin to hell!

    As Mark Twain said, heaven for the climate, hell for the company…

  20. The table of contents for Fred Phelps’s wikipedia article reads like a demon’s resume.

    That thing on Reagan sums the WBC up nicely: they take a person that’s widely considered a very religious person, say he’s going to hell because he barely tolerated gay people, and then back it up with actual scripture.

  21. i sometimes wonder what sort of twisted fuck you have to be to torment the living at a funeral for a loved one in such a garish manner.

  22. I have heard rumors that the Phelps crew is a scam to try to provoke assaults so that they can make money suing the people they’ve provoked.

    I’ve heard the same thing.

  23. Twenty or so years ago Phelps was one the leading opponents of so-called “Liquor By The Drink” or open-saloons in Kansas. His energetic protests won him a lot of allies in-state and earned him a lot of tv air time. At the time, he seemed fairly reasonable and well spoken.

    After he lost the alcohol battle he vanished for a while and then appeared with God Hates Fags signs. His old allies thought it was extreme but forgave him for a while 1) because of his anti-alcohol work and 2) he was attacking gays.

    Little did they know he’d go bat-shit crazy in less than thirty years.

  24. I think a lot of people get the impression that Patriot Guard Riders are revving their motorcycles to drown out the protestors at these funerals. I’m pretty sure that’s not the case. How awful would that be?

    Dearly beloved, we are gath–VRRROOOMMMM!!! VRRR-VRRR-VRRROOOMMM!!!

    I’m going to hell for laughing at that image, but it is pretty funny.

    But I think they just park in front of the protestors and hold up flags. I haven’t seen this myself, but all the articles sort of point that way, and anyway… the revving would just make no sense.

  25. I would like to join the othre commenters on this thread in stating for the record that I am digusted by the Phelps. If Cathy Young writes an article on them, she will have to forgo the “on the one hand, on the other hand” format since there is nothing to say in their defense.

  26. Good on the bikers. A man who torments the mourners at military funerals deserves to be hung by his toes over a lava pit. I really have nothing intelligent to add to the discussion; I only wanted to express my disgust at this cockroach on two legs.

  27. what’s an open saloon?

  28. But here’s a paradox: If the soldiers dying in Iraq can be said to be part of a homosexual organization by virtue of their membership in the larger group, and if America is indeed turning its back on the lord by embracing homosexuality, then simply by being Americans (and I don’t mean to insult Americans here) the members of Westboro are just as hellbound as Reagan and the soldiers.

    But what the fuck they’re already in hell, they live in Topeka.

  29. If anyone does kick Phelp’s ass, is there a jury in this country that would find for the plaintiff if the little asshole tried to sue?

    -jcr

  30. I find it rather peculiar that while his little crew of inbred cretins are out protesting, that their church back in Kansas hasn’t mysteriously caught fire and burned to the ground.

  31. But for the bereaved, I guess even slightly irritating support is better than no support at all.

    Rev. Phelps has been around for years, and I consider his behavior to be more appalling than _any_ other American public figure, excepting those who were in the public eye purely because of crimes they committed. There is no one more disgusting, and no one more sorely in need of condemnation.

    It blows my mind that anyone in their right mind could write about him with any amount of equanimity whatsoever.

  32. I have heard rumors that the Phelps crew is a scam to try to provoke assaults so that they can make money suing the people they’ve provoked.

    But if they’re all killed, then there’d be nobody left to sue! Just have to be thorough about it.

  33. I am sorry to report that that jacket has the colors (red and blue) and mascot (the Jayhawk) of my alma, the University of Kansas.

  34. “Fred Phelps is a Five-Point Calvinist who urges all people to carefully study and discern what are the signs of the times (Mat. 16:3) in the light of the Scriptures rightly divided (2 Tim. 2:15) and church history from Adam to now.”

    I didn’t know he was a Calvinist too. How interesting: God hates gay people and has sent this guy to change the nation– even though, for a calvinist, God determines all events and nothing can change. Such hypocrisy is obvious and long-commented upon, but that Phelps believes it demeans even Calvinist thought. I’d reject all five points on principle (which I do anyway, of course).

  35. schlechte Verbesserung? I think you mean Verschlimmbesserung, colloquial German for an improvement that isn’t.

    Schlechte Verbesserung wouldn’t be the nice pun that Verschlimmbesserung is.

    Other than that, no more language nazi nitpicking from me. Ze Sauerbraten ist kostlich!

    Yours, Bernd

  36. Phelps and several members of his extended family are lawyers and are well known in the Topeka area for suing anyone who even looks at them cross-eyed.

    There’s an interesting article about Phelps called “Addicted to Hate”. It’s available in several places on the web.

  37. Phelps and several members of his extended family are lawyers and are well known in the Topeka area for suing anyone who even looks at them cross-eyed.

    Interesting.

  38. We all know some people need killin’.
    Southerners are able to say that out loud.

    Why can’t Intelligent Designer be a sniper?

    Intelligent Designer IS a sniper in the sense that 99.9 of the species she has designed since the “beginning” are extinct.

    Be that as it may, is bird flu the mysterious way Intelligent Designer will be using to snipe those that need killin’?

    Bird flu… snipe. Get it?

    Stay tuned.
    Tra la la
    Tweedlee dee
    on Mockingbird Hill…

  39. You can check out photographs from, apparent, funeral pickets here.

    …You can see protest signs with delightful captions, such as, “Thank God for Sept. 11”, “Thank God for IEDs” and, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”.

  40. I’ll just note that GodHatesWorthlessShits.com is available, if anyone wants a project.

  41. Judging by their signs, the Westboro Baptist Church has a real hard-on for IED’s.

    Just sayin’.

  42. I’ve noted that conservative blogs spend alot of time hyperventilating over the words of hapless “liberals”. You know the ones, the prof who talks about understanding where Muslims are coming from etc…
    I’ve always thought why not focus on the acts, not words, of the folks in power?
    But it would be a amusing turn about to tar conservative church going GOP voters with Phelps.

  43. Somehow I missed out on the first 20 years or so of Phelps rantings. I got a quick study and became aware of this situation thanks to Addicted to Hate. It is a must-read text for those who are puzzling over what to do next. My thought is to let the Phelps’ grandchildren know that we understand that they are trapped, that they need love, that no one can blame them for following what the cult leader Phelps, Sr. has done to his family. I applaud Mark and Nate for their courage to leave the hateful den. The others in that group need to be deprogrammed before they are hopelessly lost to hatred’s grasp.

    Ric

  44. As I understand it, Phelps was disbarred after getting more complaints against him than any other lawyer in the history of Kansas. Some of his kids were disbarred as well—he more-or-less forced all of them to go to law school so he’d have lawyers for his eternal army of the undead…er, whoops, I mean his church and its mission.

    I agree with the above poster who wonders why that church hasn’t mysteriously caught fire. I remember how Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s disappearance was investigated unenthusiastically because she’d made herself such a PITA to the authorities in Austin; something very like that would probably happen with Phelps if his church burned. That said, it’s part of a fenced-in “compound”—IOW, it wouldn’t be an easy target, and they aren’t ever all out of it at once.

  45. But it would be a amusing turn about to tar conservative church going GOP voters with Phelps.

    I’d just like to point out the Inconvenient Fact that Phelps is a registered Democrat.

  46. I’d just like to point out the Inconvenient Fact that Phelps is a registered Democrat.

    More than that, he worked for Al Gore’s 1988 presidential campaign. There are some good pictures floating around of Al at a fundraiser bbq over at Fred’s house.

    Life is strange.

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