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Supreme Court rules against California’s Covid-19 restrictions on grounds of religious liberty
The U.S. Supreme Court is seen from the Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Thursday, February 4, 2021. | Salwan Georges/The Washington Post/Getty Images The court rules that bible study groups should be able to gather in private homes if commercial spaces are open. The Supreme Court blocked California’s Covid-19 restrictions on religious gatherings in private homes in a late-night order on Friday, saying that the law infringes on constitutionally-protectedreligious rights in a 5-4 vote. The decision, in which Chief Justice John Roberts voted with the three dissenting liberal justices, marks the fifth time that the Supreme Court has sided with religious adherents protesting California’s laws designed to slow the spread of coronavirus. And it underscores how Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s replacement of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in November has tilted the high court toward overruling state Covid-19 restrictions on religious services. The unsigned majority opinion argued that California’s law — which limits both religious and non-religious gatherings in homes to no more than three households — treats religious gatherings unfairly in light of allowances for gatherings in commercial spaces. “California treats some comparable secular activities more favorably than at-home religious exercise, permitting hair salons, retail stores, personal care services, movie theaters, private suites at sporting events and concerts and indoor restaurants,” the opinion said. But in her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer, wrote, that the majority opinion was making the wrong comparison by comparing unlike activities: “The First Amendment requires that a state treat religious conduct as well as the state treats comparable secular conduct. Sometimes finding the right secular analogue may raise hard questions. But not today.” The courts split on how California’s law treats commercial spaces differently than private homes In her dissent, Kagan explained that California’s law doesn’t single out religious gatherings but simply treats all at-home gatherings differently than commercial spaces. “California limits religious gatherings in homes to three households. If the state also limits all secular gatherings in homes to three households, it has complied with the First Amendment. And the state does exactly that: It has adopted a blanket restriction on at-home gatherings of all kinds, religious and secular alike,” she wrote. The reason for the restrictions on households that don’t apply to commercial spaces, she wrote, is that gatherings in private homes are considered categorically riskier because of the more intimate way people gather in them. That argument was in line with the majority opinion from the 9th Circuit Court Of Appeals that the Supreme Court ultimately rejected. In that opinion, judges Milan Smith Jr. and Bridget Bade wrote that it made sense for California law to treat commercial and non-commercial spaces differently: “The state reasonably concluded that when people gather in social settings, their interactions are likely to be longer than they would be in a commercial setting; that participants in a social gathering are more likely to be involved in prolonged conversations; that private houses are typically smaller and less ventilated than commercial establishments; and that social distancing and mask-wearing are less likely in private settings and enforcement is more difficult.” The case that prompted the decision was brought by two Santa Clara County residents who said that Covid-19 restrictions violated their free speech rights by preventing their Bible study and prayer sessions with 8 to 12 individuals. Barrett has shifted the Supreme Court’s outlook on religious services The Supreme Court’s decision in their favor is a reminder of how Barrett’s arrival has shifted the ideological makeup of the court and its outlook on clashes between states and advocates for minimizing Covid-19 state restrictions on religious gatherings. As legal analyst Adam Liptak notes at the New York Times, before Ginsburg’s death last year, the Supreme Court allowed California and Nevada to restrict religious service attendance, and Roberts, the chief justice, was siding with what was then a liberal contingent made up of four justices. But that pattern shifted after Barrett’s arrival last fall, and the Supreme Court blocked New York’s restrictions on religious services. Conservative activists rankled by Covid-19 restrictions hailed Friday’s Supreme Court ruling as a victory for the right and for freedom to worship. That the state of California thinks it should be able to regulate who can pray together inside private homes is almost as appalling as the desire of all the brainwashed Fauci worshipping sheep for more arbitrary authoritarian COVID rules to keep them “safe”— Buck Sexton (@BuckSexton) April 10, 2021 Meanwhile commentators on the left have said the issue at hand is not religious liberty but rather an emerging culture war over the status of religion in American life. Writing in The New Republic about the trend of the new conservative majority’s rulings on Covid-19 and religion, Katherine Stewart wrote that the Supreme Court’s recent legal interventions are designed to “validate a false underlying narrative of religious persecution” in America.
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Biden’s Supreme Court reform commission won’t fix anything
Chief Justice John Roberts administers the oath of office to President Joe Biden. | Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images The president’s new commission has a lot of fans — in the Federalist Society. In 2014, Judge Thomas Griffith authored an opinion in Halbig v. Burwell that could have wrecked Obamacare’s insurance markets in over 30 states and potentially stripped health coverage from millions of Americans. Griffith’s court eventually vacated his ruling against Obamacare, and the Supreme Court rejected Griffith’s reasoning in King v. Burwell (2015) — but not before the Halbig decision plunged the Obama administration, health care advocates, and patients into a year of terror that Obamacare would be gutted. On Friday, President Joe Biden announced that he would sign an executive order creating a “Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States.” Griffith — who retired from the federal bench in 2020, allowing former President Trump to choose his successor — is one of several prominent conservatives on this commission, which the White House says Biden appointed to “provide an analysis of the principal arguments in the contemporary public debate for and against Supreme Court reform.” Yet, while the author of one of the most significant attacks on Obamacare in the last decade is on Biden’s commission, none of the leading academic proponents of Supreme Court reform were appointed (the overwhelming majority of the commission’s three dozen members are law professors or political scientists). Biden initially said in October he would convene a commission of leading academics to study possible reforms to the Supreme Court. At the time, Biden was torn between liberal activists who were enraged by Senate Republicans’ efforts to ensure that the GOP could control the Supreme Court, and Republican critics who accused Democrats of wanting to add seats to the Supreme Court in order to undo those efforts by the GOP. Rather than take a position on whether to add seats to the Supreme Court, Biden ultimately punted the question until after the election with his promise to appoint a commission. Now he has appointed such a commission and, measured solely by its intellectual firepower, the names on the commission are impressive. They include some of the nations’ most prominent legal academics, such as Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken and Harvard’s Laurence Tribe. But the commission does not include law professors Daniel Epps and Ganesh Sitaraman, authors of a highly influential proposal to expand the Supreme Court to 15 justices and have the key members of the Court be chosen in a bipartisan process that is intended to make the Court less ideological. And it does not include Aaron Belkin, a political science professor and leader of Take Back the Court, a pro-reform organization. In choosing the members of this commission, the White House appears to have prioritized bipartisanship and star power within the legal academy over choosing people who have actually spent a meaningful amount of time advocating for Supreme Court reforms. (I reached out to the White House for comment about several of the concerns raised in this piece, but have not heard back from them as of this writing. We will update this piece to include the White House’s comment if they respond.) When the White House released the list of commission members on Friday, it swiftly won praise — from members of the conservative Federalist Society. Evan Bernick, a right-libertarian law professor at Georgetown, praised the commission as a “powerhouse lineup of scholars.” Stephen Sachs, a Duke Law professor who won the Federalist Society’s Joseph Story Award in 2020, called the commission “an astonishingly well-balanced list.” Ilya Somin, a libertarian law professor at George Mason University, wrote shortly after the commission’s membership was announced that “the composition of the Commission is also bad news for advocates of court-packing, who may have hoped that it will produce a report endorsing the idea.” So, if the White House’s goal was to allay concerns among conservatives that President Biden might try to diminish the Republican Party’s influence over the judiciary, this commission appears to have accomplished that goal. How we got to this point Not that long ago, the idea of adding additional seats to the Supreme Court in order to change its partisan makeup was considered very radical. President Franklin Roosevelt proposed doing so in 1937 in order to neutralize a Court that frequently struck down New Deal programs on spurious legal grounds, but his proposal was unpopular and ultimately went nowhere. Yet several crucial events happened in recent years that convinced many Democrats that the federal judiciary is unfairly stacked against them. In 2016, after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February of that year, Senate Republicans refused to even give a confirmation hearing to President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, now-Attorney General Merrick Garland. At the time, Republicans claimed that it was inappropriate to confirm a Supreme Court nominee in a presidential election year. But then Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in September of 2020, and Republicans immediately abandoned the position that they invented in order to justify scuttling Garland’s nomination. Trump’s nominee, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, was confirmed just eight days before the 2020 election, which threw Trump out of office. In the interim between Garland’s unsuccessful nomination and Barrett’s successful one, Democrats endured two other significant traumas. The first was that Trump became president, despite receiving nearly 3 million fewer votes than Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Republicans also controlled the Senate for the entirety of Trump’s presidency — but they only controlled the Senate thanks to malapportionment. The Democratic “minority” in the Senate represented millions more Americans than the Republican “majority” during Trump’s presidency. Indeed, all three of Trump’s Supreme Court appointees were nominated by a president who lost the popular vote and confirmed by a bloc of senators who represent less than half of the country. The second trauma was the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was credibly accused of attempting to rape Dr. Christine Blasey Ford while Kavanaugh and Ford were both in high school. Kavanaugh responded to these allegations with an angry rant before the Senate Judiciary Committee, in which he seemed to threaten retaliation against Democrats for repeating the allegations against him — “what goes around comes around,” Kavanaugh told the committee. All of this contributed to a sense among Democrats that the Court has become too partisan, and led many prominent Democrats to conclude that radical action was necessary to prevent a GOP-led Supreme Court from dismantling voting rights and otherwise entrenching Republican power. Yet, when candidate Biden was asked about whether he’d support radical reforms such as adding seats to the Supreme Court, he initially said he opposed these reforms. After Ginsburg’s death, he took a more agnostic stance, saying that, while he’s “not been a fan of court-packing,” his approach to the issue would depend on how the Barrett confirmation fight played out. Now that Barrett’s been confirmed, however, Biden appears to be signaling with his new commission that significant reforms to the Supreme Court will not be on the table. Why a milquetoast Supreme Court commission matters Court-packing is not something that anyone should do lightly. If Democrats did add seats to the Supreme Court in order to change its partisan balance, the result most likely would not be widespread acceptance of the newly liberal Court’s decisions. It would be massive resistance from Republicans. As Justice Stephen Breyer recently warned during a lecture at Harvard Law School, “structural alteration [of the Court] motivated by the perception of political influence” will erode trust in the Court’s decisions. Yet, while Breyer is correct to warn that significant reforms to the Supreme Court are likely to undermine the Court’s legitimacy, the mere threat of court-packing can serve an important function. If the justices believe that President Biden may send them six new colleagues if the Court dismantles what remains of the Voting Rights Act, then those justices may be less likely to dismantle the Voting Rights Act. A healthy fear of a Democratic majority could lead the Supreme Court to become less partisan. But Biden’s new commission sends the opposite message. With so many prominent members of the Federalist Society praising the commission right out the gate, it’s clear that conservatives do not feel threatened by this commission. And the justices themselves are just as capable of looking at the list of names that Biden picked and seeing that this commission is unlikely to support significant reforms.
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Why the author of Girl, Stop Apologizing had to apologize twice in a week
Rachel Hollis speaks onstage at the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals, on March 9, 2019, in Austin, Texas. | Dave Pedley/Getty Images for SXSW The Rachel Hollis controversy points to bigger problems in white women’s self-help. Earlier this week, influencer and bestselling self-help author Rachel Hollis apologized for appearing to compare herself to Harriet Tubman. “I know I’ve caused tremendous pain by mentioning prominent women — including several women of color — whose struggles and achievements I couldn’t possibly understand,” the author of Girl, Wash Your Face and Girl, Stop Apologizing wrote in an Instagram post. The post served as her second apology over the controversy, which has been roiling on social media for nearly two weeks. Hollis’s ill-fated Harriet Tubman comparison emerged in a now-deleted TikTok video posted in late March, in which she responded to charges that when she talks about “this sweet woman” in her employ who “cleans the toilets,” she sounds “unrelatable.” Rachel Hollis comparing herself to Harriet Tubman is WILD— Angie Treasure (@snark_tank) April 2, 2021 “What is it about me that made you think I want to be relatable?” Hollis asked rhetorically. “No, sis. Literally everything I do in my life is to live a life that most people can’t relate to.” After outlining some of the ways in which she sees herself as exceptional, including her willingness to wake up at 4 am and fail publicly when she has to, Hollis comes to her conclusion: “Literally every woman that I look up to is unrelatable,” she says. “If my life is relatable to most people, I’m doing it wrong.” The video’s caption reads, “Harriet Tubman, RBG, Marie Curie, Oprah Winfrey, Amelia Earhart, Frida Kahlo, Malala Yousafzai, Wu Zetian … all Unrelatable AF. Happy Women’s History Month.” For many observers, the post appeared clumsy at best and racist at worst. Was Hollis really saying that her struggles to build a brand as a lifestyle guru — a brand built on the sense she has created that she is just like her fans — was the same as Harriet Tubman escaping slavery and then going back to help other enslaved people escape? And was she really trying to tell her followers that she never wanted to be relatable after selling thousands of books telling them all the ways in which she was the same kind of person they were? And was she really doing it while simultaneously referring to her housekeeper as the “woman who cleans her toilets”? “EVERYONE works as hard as you do,” wrote one Twitter responder, “especially the woman on her hands and knees scrubbing your toilet while you prance around making videos abt how much better you are than she is & call it ‘work.’” “The privilege to fail so majorly so often is one I, or any Black woman, do not have,” said the self-help author Luvvie Ajayi Jones on Instagram. “People try to destroy us for much less. Meanwhile, she goes to sell 2 million books without effort while saying appalling things. She still has 1.7 million followers. That is privilege.” On April 4, Hollis made her first apology — but it was an apology that displaced all blame for what happened onto those who, Hollis said, had misinterpreted her, and a “team” that had failed to do its job correctly. In a now-deleted Instagram post, she maintained that she had not actually been comparing herself to any of the women that she had mentioned, and that “to believe that because I mentioned them, I am comparing myself to them is ludicrous.” She added that she had waited so long to respond to the backlash over her original video because she believed her “team” when they said they could handle things, and instead, “I should have listened to my gut.” In the face of widespread criticism, Hollis would eventually delete this apology and replace it with another. “I am so deeply sorry for the things I said in my recent posts and the hurt I have caused in the past few days,” she wrote, adding, “By talking about my own success, I diminished the struggles and hard work of many people who work tirelessly every day.” View this post on Instagram A post shared by Rachel Hollis (@msrachelhollis) The Rachel Hollis controversy has had legs for a few reasons. There’s the hypocrisy of an influencer claiming that her goal has never been to be relatable, when relatability is at the core of her brand. There’s the implication that her achievements as a self-help author are on the same level as the achievements of women like Harriet Tubman. There’s the casual dehumanization involved in referring to a house cleaner as someone who “cleans the toilets.” There’s Hollis’s insistence that the reason other people are not as successful as she is — including, we would have to presume, her house cleaner — because they are not working as hard as Hollis is at her job as a lifestyle and self-help influencer. But the controversy is also lasting as long as it has because it is in certain ways unsurprising. It has become bizarrely common in recent years for prominent figures in the quasi-feminist “lean in, girl” corporate white women’s empowerment movement to compare their own struggles to the much higher-stakes obstacles faced by famous women of color. Hollis herself has cycled through variations of this controversy before. In 2019, she appeared to plagiarize multiple inspirational quotes on her Instagram, mostly quotes from women of color. She’s fond of sassy white lady use of African-American Vernacular English, from her choice to call her imagined interlocutor “sis” in the Harriet Tubman video to the title of the Girl, Wash Your Face franchise. But Hollis is not the only white figure who has appropriated the struggles of women of color to dress up her own. Ivanka Trump’s 2017 self-help book Women Who Work used a quote from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, about an enslaved woman who killed her baby in order to prevent the child from being taken into slavery, to introduce the idea that women who work are sometimes slaves to their schedules. And this sense of appropriation goes all the way to the roots of the self-help movement Hollis champions. Hollis’s Girl, Wash Your Face brand is based on the idea of wellness and self-care, on the notion that putting in the work to care for one’s self is a brave and radical act, and that it can look as simple as, well, washing your face. But when self-care was invented, it was an explicitly political act. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,” wrote Audre Lorde in A Burst of Light and Other Essays in 1988, in a phrase that has now been reproduced on inspirational Instagrams across the internet. “It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Lorde’s self-care was different from the bath bombs and yoga classes today’s wellness influencers prescribe. Lorde was a Black lesbian poet who got a single mastectomy after she was diagnosed with cancer. She was someone who our culture treated as disposable, and she was trying to love herself and care for herself anyway, with honesty, in the best way that she could. So self-care for Lorde meant refusing to get a breast implant or wear a false breast after her mastectomy. It meant insisting on dressing and grooming herself well, even single-breasted, as a sign that she valued herself when the world refused to value her. That insistence on self-care was genuinely subversive and anti-capitalist — and it was part of how Lorde readied herself to engage in political activism. She took care of herself so that she could find the strength to change the world. The wellness and self-care at the center of Hollis’s brand is not about changing the world, and it is not anti-capitalist. It is about buying stuff, and specifically about buying Hollis’s books and tickets to her retreats ($65 a ticket for the virtual version). “Wellness is being commodified,” wrote the influencer Rachel Cargle on Instagram in response to the Hollis controversy, urging her followers to “meditate AND call your senator. Go to yoga AND vote.” View this post on Instagram A post shared by Rachel Elizabeth Cargle (@rachel.cargle) In the caption of her text post, Cargle added, “The issue I have with many celebrated white wellness spaces and women’s empowerment influencer or brands is that they oddly seem to equate ‘success’ to getting what white men have and wielding that power in the exact same oppressive inhumane way that white men have been doing for generations.” The issue Cargle identifies is, in the end, the biggest act of appropriation in the entire corporate white feminist enterprise, the whole project that Hollis is selling. It’s the decision to take a political movement built to deconstruct our existing systems of power — and use it to do nothing but support the status quo.
The British media narrative of Prince Philip’s death is about Meghan Markle
British newspaper headlines about Meghan Markle in March. | Chris Jackson/Getty Images Social media’s view of the 99-year-old man’s death is much different. Ordinarily, the death of a 99-year-old man wouldn’t raise much suspicion. But because Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, isn’t your typical long-lived man, his death on April 9 provides a window into the recent woes of the British royal family — and the media’s fixation on its contentious relationship with Meghan Markle. Prince Philip was hospitalized for a full month in February, reportedly for treatment of a preexisting heart condition. As he was nearing his 100th birthday, his death is hardly a surprise. According to the royal family’s official statement, His Highness “passed away peacefully this morning at Windsor Castle.” It didn’t take long, however, for anticipation to spread throughout social media that the press would find a more disruptive cause for Prince Philip’s death than illness or old age. Amid the many memes that began circulating online once the news broke, a prominent theme emerged: British media placing the blame on Meghan Markle. Markle has spent the last year mired in controversy, first for formally resigning her royal duties along with her husband Prince Harry and second for a March 7 interview with Oprah Winfrey in which the couple spoke out against the family’s treatment of her. Among the most shocking revelations to come out of that interview were the couple’s statements that the family had professed “concerns” over the color of their unborn child’s skin, had refused to provide the couple with a security detail in violation of protocol, and had refused to help Markle seek treatment after she became suicidal — in part due to a barrage of racist harassment from the press. It’s no secret that the British media, particularly tabloid journalism, has lost little love for Markle since she became the latest member of the royal family. From the moment she began dating Prince Harry in 2016, Markle has faced racist and sexist backlash, criticizing everything from her perceived unlikability to her “exotic DNA.” And in the aftermath of the Oprah interview, Piers Morgan, in particular, has led the charge of many British journalists in accusing Markle of, essentially, lying about everything — pushing an unsubstantiated idea of “fakery” that led to him walking off and ultimately quitting his news show Good Morning Britain. Hence the nearly immediate assumption that the British press would find a way to shift the focus off Prince Philip and onto Markle. prince philip: *diespiers morgan:— Stanky (@stankymma) April 9, 2021 Two pieces Daily Mail columnists can have ready to go right now: 1. Why Meghan Markle’s presence at the funeral is an insult, designed to overshadow a somber occasion. 2. Why Meghan Markle’s absence from the funeral, is an insult, designed to overshadow a somber occasion.— Alex Andreou (@sturdyAlex) April 9, 2021 Sometimes the predictions that a narrative around “Meghan and Harry’s Oprah interview contributing to Prince Philip’s untimely death” were uncanny in how they bore out. It didn’t take long, for example, for the Daily Mail to trot out a piece that emphasized Prince Philip’s “tough final year” and the way the end of his life was marred, in part, by “bitter fallout from ‘his favourite’ grandchild Harry and Meghan’s decision to quit ‘the firm.’” Notably, however, it was American outlet Fox News who seemed to get there first. “There has to be some way we can blame Meghan Markle for this” - Fox News— philip lewis (@Phil_Lewis_) April 9, 2021 The predictability of this response by certain media outlets, particularly conservative ones, cannot be overstated. It suggests that at least where the royal family is concerned, a uniformly monotone kind of coverage has been established: Foment outrage and fear, attack, repeat. The fact that memes anticipating precisely this kind of news coverage preceded the coverage itself suggests that racist press coverage of Markle has been both transparently flimsy and largely ineffective as a form of persuasion to the average media consumer — whether they’re thoroughly informed or only half-paying attention on social media. Markle and Prince Harry, by giving such a momentous interview to Oprah Winfrey, explicitly engaged the American public in the broader public debate over the family’s treatment of them. One result is a clear assumption on the part of many observers worldwide, and Black observers in particular, that any and all coverage of struggle or tragedy within the royal family will somehow involve a return to implicit racism toward and perpetual attacks against Markle. The “Meghan is to blame” memes — and the overall tone of the other snarky, cynical, and critical memes that have emerged — also suggest a distinct breakdown between media coverage of Prince Philip’s death and the popular impression of it. While plenty of news outlets have struck a more typical tone of somber respect, social media has largely been full of irreverence, with users across various platforms employing memes and general insouciance to remind us that Prince Philip came from a family with Nazis in it (though he opposed Hitler), to imagine Princess Diana greeting him in heaven with animosity (in fact they were very close), and to recall his long history of alleged racist remarks — with the kind of bluntness the press has largely eschewed. For example, one BBC obituary glossed over the issue of Prince Philip allegedly making racist comments by framing them as part of his “tendency to be forthright” and offering other euphemistic spins — which led to criticism of both Philip and the outlet. Along with mournful “RIP” threads, Twitter has been rife with people celebrating Philip’s death on behalf of Black citizens presumably offended by his treatment of Markle. Black twitter finding out about Prince Philips death— M.A (@ma_akinr) April 9, 2021 The levity isn’t all related to politics: On TikTok, memes about Philip’s death have been circulating for the past few weeks, with the jokes largely centering on the prince’s suspected immortality — or suspicions that he actually already died weeks ago. But that more typical flavor of onlinehumor has been vastly overshadowed by the recent royal family brouhaha. It’s a reminder that the family is no closer to figuring out how to handle strong, independent women in its midst today than it was during Diana’s ascendance. TikTok’s take on the topic seems closer to the truth than that of the tabloids: The Duke of Edinburgh was 99 years old. Any efforts to place blame for his death reveal far more about the state of the media than about Meghan Markle.
Saudi Arabia’s Yemen blockade is starving millions. Democrats want Biden to stop it.
A sick Yemeni child lies on her mother as they wait to give her medical treatment over a lack of health services and supplies due to the ongoing Yemen war and blockade at a hospital on March 31, 2018, in Sana’a. | Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images The Biden administration faces relentless pressure from the left to push Saudi Arabia to lift its Yemen blockade. Saudi Arabia is continuing its six-year air and sea blockade of Yemen, starving millions of Yemenis and deepening the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Anger from Democrats and progressives in the US isn’t just directed at Riyadh, though. It’s also aimed at the Biden administration for failing to fully pressure Saudi Arabia to lift the restrictions. When Saudi Arabia and its allies launched a war against the Houthis in 2015 — with US support — Saudi used its military to block planes from landing and ships from docking in Yemen, saying such measures were necessary to stop the Houthis from smuggling in weapons, including from Iran. The Saudi coalition is fighting to oust the Houthi rebels, who overthrew the internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur al-Hadi in 2015, and return al-Hadi, who currently lives in exile in Saudi Arabia, to power. But critics warned the blockade would keep much-needed food, fuel, medicine, and humanitarian aid from reaching desperate Yemenis, including millions of children, who are caught in the middle of the fighting. That concern proved devastatingly prophetic. The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, the world’s top authority on food security, said last year that 47,000 Yemenis were suffering from famine-like conditions and that over 16 million — over half of Yemen’s population — couldn’t reliably and adequately feed themselves. Multiple United Nations agencies have said that at least 400,000 Yemeni children could die this year alone if conditions don’t improve. In early February, President Joe Biden promised the US would stop supporting the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive operations in the war. But, he added, “We’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.” Some analysts believe Riyadh took that as implicit support for the blockade, even as the Biden administration has consistently expressed the free flow of fuel and goods into Yemen is “critical.” That may partly explain why Saudi Arabia has kept the restrictions in place. In March, for instance, CNN found that Saudi warships had kept all oil tankers from docking in the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah since the start of the year. “The Saudi vessels that patrol the waters of Hodeidah have control over which commercial ships can dock and unload their cargo,” CNN reported. “Some goods are getting through — CNN witnessed aid being loaded on to trucks at the port after being delivered by ship — but not any fuel to deliver them.” Now, Democrats want Biden to push Riyadh to end the blockade once and for all. Nearly 80 Democrats made that clear in a Tuesday letter to the president. “We ask you to take additional steps to publicly pressure Saudi Arabia to lift this blockade immediately, unilaterally, and comprehensively,” wrote the lawmakers, including Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the House Intelligence Committee chair. Among other things, they want the Saudis to “[guarantee] that humanitarian and commercial imports can freely enter Yemen” and “[ensure] that and crossings for commercial and civilian traffic are permanently opened.” “Every day that we wait for these issues to be resolved in negotiations is another day that pushes more children to the brink of death,” the letter added. It’s unclear if the White House will listen to their plea. The Biden administration’s current approach toward the conflict is to try to broker a peace deal between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis. Some progressive activists accuse the president and his team of wanting to keep the blockade in place to serve as a bargaining chip in negotiations. “They support the blockade currently,” said Erik Sperling, executive director of Just Foreign Policy, a progressive foreign policy group. “The administration would only want it lifted as part of a comprehensive agreement.” Other analysts disagree. “That’s hyperbolic,” said Seth Binder, an advocacy officer at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) in Washington, DC, noting that Biden’s team restarted humanitarian funding for northern Yemen cut by the Trump administration and repeated calls for open trade. Still, Binder said the president and his aides “could and should be sharpening their rhetoric” toward Saudi Arabia about ending the blockade. Biden will continue to face pressure over the Saudi blockade Days after CNN’s March report exposing the disastrous effects of the blockade, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud proposed to reopen the airport in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a and allow food and fuel imports at Hodeidah. “The initiative will take effect as soon as the Houthis agree to it,” the minister said. It was the first time Riyadh openly acknowledged carrying out a deliberate blockade in Yemen. Hodeidah is vitally important to Yemen’s economy. It’s the country’s largest and most important port, and it’s crucial to the nation’s trade and taxation efforts, said Shamiran Mako, an assistant professor at Boston University. But the Houthis almost immediately rejected the Saudi plan, saying it didn’t fully lift the long-imposed restrictions. “Opening the airports and seaports is a humanitarian right and should not be used as a pressure tool,” said Mohammed Abdulsalam, the Houthis’ chief negotiator. The Houthis, however, are also known to divert aid away from the population and to their own officials, supporters, and fighters. Since then, the Saudi-led coalition has allowed at least four fuel ships in Hodeidah’s port, even as Riyadh has gone back to denying restrictions exist. “There is no blockade,” the Saudi foreign minister told CNN in an interview this week, saying that 67 ships had docked in Hodeidah over the last three months and that the flow of goods continues at other crossings. But experts say that’s still not enough to ease the humanitarian crisis. And they say Saudi Arabia won’t change its tune unless the Biden administration exerts significant pressure. One way it could do that, POMED’s Binder said, is to threaten to further downgrade the US-Saudi relationship if such restrictions persist. “That gives the administration the most leverage” throughout the diplomatic process. For example, the US could further restrict arms sales to the kingdom or curtail economic ties. Meanwhile, pressure from Democrats and activists has become more visible. Activists from Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan, have been on a hunger strike for more than 10 days, calling for an end to the blockade. Their effort has the support of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who joined one of the striking activists, 26-year-old Iman Saleh, outside the White House for a press conference on Friday. It was Saleh’s 12th day without food. Between the letter from lawmakers and increased activity from anti-blockade activists, it looks like Biden will continue to face criticism on the issue. “Democrats are starting to get concerned and wanting to push the administration more,” Binder told me. “The honeymoon phase is coming to an end.”
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What Biden’s first budget proposal tells us about his vision for America
President Joe Biden speaks about gun violence at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on April 8. | Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images Biden’s first budget proposal embraces bigger government. There’s a consistent theme in President Joe Biden’s first budget proposal, released Friday morning: The federal government can help solve big problems. But to do that, the country needs to reinvest in areas it’s neglected for decades. The $1.5 trillion discretionary funding request is only a proposal — and not even a complete budget proposal, with a more comprehensive version including mandatory spending and tax changes coming this spring. But it’s an important window into the new administration’s priorities, calling for a boost in domestic spending on issues ranging from education in poor communities to the opioid epidemic to climate change to pandemic preparedness. In a letter to Congress, the administration pointed to the “four compounding crises of unprecedented scope and scale” the US is currently dealing with: the Covid-19 pandemic, a weakened economy, a reckoning on racism, and global warming. It argued that the federal government, with the right priorities, can not only tackle these crises but “begin building a better, stronger, more secure, more inclusive America.” To achieve that, the Biden administration proposes boosting non-defense discretionary spending by 16 percent — an attempt to get the country back to historical spending levels. Among the increases are funding boosts to housing vouchers, Title I grants for high-poverty schools, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, programs to help combat the opioid epidemic, and gun violence initiatives. Whether it’s the economy, a pandemic, violence against women, or clean energy, the budget lays out a worldview in which the Biden administration and the federal government take a direct, hands-on role to solve some of the thorniest problems facing the US — in contrast to Republicans’ small-government philosophy. It’s also an ambitious document by the standard of recent Democratic administrations that, at times, limited their scope to avoid criticisms of “big government” — as seen by former President Bill Clinton’s efforts to balance the federal budget and former President Barack Obama’s attempts to shore up Republican support through a smaller stimulus package and restrained federal spending. Ultimately, it’s up to Congress to decide how much any of this actually becomes law. Historically, lawmakers on the Hill tend to take their own path on budget issues, picking and choosing which parts of the president’s proposals they want to keep. That’s true even in situations like the current one, where the president’s political party controls Congress. Still, these kinds of budget requests provide a detailed look at what, exactly, the president and his team want to do — their vision for the country. In 1996, then-President Clinton famously claimed in his State of the Union address that “the era of big government is over.” Now, Biden is trying to bring at least some of that era back. What Biden’s budget includes Biden’s proposal includes a lot of moving pieces, which you can be read in full here. But here are some of the major points: Support for more jobs: The budget proposal includes more funding for programs that support manufacturing at home, infrastructure and mass transit projects, and job training programs. There’s also a boost in funding for research and development, from NASA to the Department of Energy, to “help spur innovation across the economy and renew America’s global leadership.” An expanded social safety net: The proposal boosts funding for a range of programs that prop up the country’s poor and disadvantaged, including schools in high-poverty areas, early child care and preschool, Pell Grants for higher education, housing vouchers, and grants to help domestic violence survivors and homeless youth. A bigger investment in public health: The budget proposal calls for more spending on a host of pandemic-related public health initiatives, through the CDC, to build public health capacity, modernize data collection, train new epidemiologists and other experts, and take other steps to “detect, prepare for, and respond to emerging global threats.” The proposal also aims to boost funding on a range of other public health issues, including HIV/AIDS, gun violence, the opioid crisis, and violence against women. Efforts against climate change: The proposal backs a long list of new and increased measures to combat climate change, including energy efficiency in low-income homes and public buildings, electric vehicles and charging stations, clean energy projects, and programs focused around “climate resilience and disaster planning.” It also calls for efforts to clean up pollution, plug abandoned wells and mines, improve water infrastructure, and boost research, development, and innovation in clean energy and the climate. Addressing racial inequality: Across all of these programs, Biden’s proposal emphasizes tackling racial inequities. For example, increases in funding for schools and child care should help communities of color that are disproportionately left behind in the economy. There are also several initiatives that tackle systemic racism directly, like greater funding for minority-owned businesses. A defense spending increase and other foreign policy priorities: The proposal calls for a 1.7 percent increase in defense spending — less than projected by former President Donald Trump’s own budget, but likely to draw the ire of progressives who have long called for a decrease in defense spending in general. The administration also commits to a range of other foreign policy initiatives, including efforts to counter China’s growing influence as well as funding to Central America to address the “root causes” that have driven a flow of migrants north to the US in recent years. Across the board, Biden’s budget proposal is a largely tacit — and sometimes explicit — criticism of the past few decades’ disinvestment in public services. For example, in her letter to Congress, Office of Management and Budget acting director Shalanda Young called out reduced funding to the CDC in the lead-up to the Covid-19 pandemic: “We know that anticipating, preparing for, and fighting a global pandemic requires a robust public health infrastructure. Yet, going into the COVID-19 pandemic, funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was 10 percent lower than a decade ago, adjusted for inflation.” The message is very clear: The US is facing a range of unique problems — particularly the four compounding crises that the White House often refers to — and a key reason that these things got so bad to begin with was government neglect. By renewing federal spending and efforts in these areas, the Biden administration hopes to undo the damage done and set the country on a better path moving forward. A repudiation of austerity — and an embrace of big government solutions Under the previous Democratic administration, former President Barack Obama and then–Vice President Biden at times embraced austerity politics, trying to land budget deals with Republicans that would tame federal spending and reduce the deficit. When Republicans threatened economic calamity by refusing to raise a limit on the federal government’s debt, the Obama administration even agreed to spending caps that limited how much the federal government could do — a sign of the politics of the time. Biden clearly repudiates this style of politics, with officials describing the spending caps as “overly restrictive” and the proposal boosting spending across the board. But his budget request goes further than rejecting the politics of the past. It’s also an effort to show that the federal government can play a role in solving major problems. In comparison, Trump’s budget proposals routinely called for sweeping cuts, particularly to the US’s social safety net. Trump slashed taxes and regulations. He called for repealing Obamacare. At times, Trump resisted acknowledging the problems that the federal government could play a role in solving, from global warming to systemic racism. This approach culminated in the Covid-19 crisis. The Trump administration refused to take more direct, hands-on approaches to build the country’s testing capacity. It did make a significant investment into research, development, and manufacturing vaccines — but then it refused to do much to help states distribute them. One Trump official even described the idea of supporting states as a “federal invasion” of the states. This is the contrast that Biden is drawing now. Since he came into office, Biden has been pushing for a bigger government role on a host of issues. That includes the pandemic — the administration has taken measures to increase testing capacity and help states distribute vaccines, for example. But it also includes areas like the economy, climate change, gun violence, child and elderly care, and more research into all these problems and more — all of which have gotten or could get boosts through the $1.9 trillion relief package and $2 trillion infrastructure proposal. This is the vision that Biden’s initial budget proposal lays out, one in which the federal government takes a more direct approach to directly helping Americans and solving some of the problems that hold them down. Some of this is political. As one Biden official told Ezra Klein at the New York Times, “If we don’t show people we’re helping the shit out of them, this country could be back to Trump way too quickly.” It’s also a reaction to the federal government’s failures in the past few decades. There’s a sense among progressives that many of the country’s current problems, from economic and racial inequality to climate change to the pandemic, were exacerbated or outright caused by public disinvestment. The federal government could have taken stronger action to confront any of these issues decades ago — helping reverse massive wealth gaps, combat global warming before it got so bad, or prepare the country for a pandemic. But it didn’t. Biden, at least, hopes to do that. His budget proposal is a key example of how he’s getting there.
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It’s astounding that HBO’s new docuseries Exterminate All the Brutes even exists
Fraser James in a reenactment in Exterminate All the Brutes. | Velvet Film/David Koskas/HBO Raoul Peck’s four-part docuseries takes a scorching, brilliant ride through the history of white supremacy. “A certain view of history contends that the historical narrative is just one fiction among others,” Raoul Peck’s deep, gravelly voice assertsnear the beginning of Exterminate All the Brutes. But this view is wrong, he says. Some narratives are rooted in fact; others were made up to satisfy the powerful. “There is,” Peck declares, “no such thing as alternative facts.” The four-part documentary series, now streaming on HBO Max, is not just Peck’s attempt to set the record straight, to pry apart fact and fiction. It’s a multilayered, serpentine, superlative recasting of history, in which Peck argues that many things we are taught as truth are actually the winners’ preferred version of the facts. His aim, he says, is to “deconstruct the official narrative.” That project, of course, has been ongoing for a long while, and several influences are discussed in the series, including Howard Zinn (A People’s History of the United States), Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (An Indigenous People’s History of the United States), and Sven Lindqvist (whose book by the same title inspired this series). But doing the work in a visual and aural medium makes it all the more arresting. Each episode of Exterminate All the Brutes illustrates, in damning detail, the long arm of the construct of “whiteness” and white supremacy, a force much bigger than one country or one historical period. Then, it seeks to break that arm’s vice grip on our future. HBO Exterminate All the Brutes looks back at history and toward the future. Even putting aside the ways it blows up historical narratives, it’s just astounding that this series exists. Documentary series have thrived in the streaming age, with a seemingly endless cavalcade of stories about true crime or bizarre cults. You could argue that Exterminate All the Brutes both fits and transcends those categories. It rigorously unspools centuries of crimes committed against vast swaths of humanity. And those crimes were the direct result of a kind of cult, one that centered some idea of a perfect human — white, male, cisgender, able-bodied — as the apex of our species. The powerful vehemently drew lines between who’s “in” (the “civilized”) and who’s out (the “brutes”), and made sure the social order was vigorously maintained at all costs. But from a pure filmmaking perspective, Exterminate All the Brutes may be unparalleled among TV docuseries; the closest I can think of is the complexity and contextualization evident in the 2016 Oscar-winning 10-part series O.J.: Made in America. Peck doesn’t rely on tired visual tropes or techniques that would make it easy to just put on the show in the background while you’re doing something else. He demands our attention with wit, craft, and well-placed anger. Peck has been making movies for a long time, both fiction and nonfiction; his most recent film was I Am Not Your Negro, in which he envisioned how an uncompleted James Baldwin manuscript might have finished. Viewers who’ve seen that film will recognize Peck’s hand in this one. Exterminate All the Brutes — a phrase drawn from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness — brings every tool in the cinematic chest to the work table, and each is deployed skillfully. Images from historical archives. Sequences and scenes spanning a range of films, from On the Town to Birth of a Nation to The Alamo to Peck’s own work. Maps and taxonomic lists that lay out the characteristics of authoritarianism and fascism and catalog methods of genocide. There’s narration from Peck — an essayistic recital in which he moves between historical eras, countries, connected events, and his own history. HBO Josh Hartnett in Exterminate All the Brutes. And, perhaps most surprisingly, there are fictional recreations, most of them starring Josh Hartnett, who embodies a certain sort of white European convinced that the “savages” are not equal to him, and therefore not deserving of dignity. In one scene, he’s an invading colonizer in the Belgian Congo; in another, he’s a 19th-century Army sergeant making short shrift of a Seminole tribe. In casting the same face to move through these scenes, Peck makes his keen point: Time and place may change, but the sentiment of the white man’s rightful place as ruler remains the same. That white supremacy is as much a spirit as a set of ideas. Peck is wryly funny at times, infusing Exterminate All the Brutes with a kind of weary gallows humor (the second episode is titled “Who the F*** is Columbus?”). His droll, dark playfulness spills over into the recreations, too. They’re not all based in fact, a choice that makes a point. In one scene, Black men come across a group of slavers leading a group of white children through the forest en route to be sold to masters. The incongruity of the image from what we typically see in the movies — because even though it represents a history that happened, the roles were reversed — spins the mirror back on the viewer, immediately asking us whether, and why, we feel this is more transgressive or disturbing than the images of Black slaves we’ve seen many times before. Similarly, in another, almost slapstick scene, Hartnett plays a Christopher Columbus-type character who comes ashore with four men, only to be slaughtered and left for dead by the Indigenous people, would-be colonizers thwarted for a time. The reality — which trampled over established cultures and individual lives in an unbearable way — is much more grim. At times, the episodes sprawl so much that it can be hard to keep track of how we got from John Wayne to Peck’s own home movies to the Haitian Revolution to the Irish being seen as “apes” to Alexis de Tocqueville writing about the Trail of Tears.Yet that’s kind of the point. Essays have always been the form best suited to letting the reader feel as if they’re thinking and exploring along with the writer. In an essay film, the goal is the same — to let us move along Peck’s thought paths, tracing the connections he sees. It’s a relief that Exterminate All the Brutes is not laser-focused on America; the spectre of Donald Trump hovers over much of the series, but Peck’s project is much bigger. That’s partly because his own personal history — as a Haitian immigrant to Brooklyn who’s lived all over the world, including a long stint in France — has given him a framework that links past and present, east and west. The series explores everything from how Winston Churchill framed the enemy when he was a war correspondent to the way St. Francis was taught in Peck’s youthful school days to the history of weaponry to the imagery of The Island of Dr. Moreau. HBO Exterminate All the Brutes is an expansive, ambitious look at how all of the threads of history are bound together. Ambitiously, Peck ties it all together, not leaning on a grand unifying theory so much as plucking at the brightly colored thread that runs through all of them. He frequently returns to the Holocaust and Nazi-era Germany, chiefly to remind the audience that those events aren’t isolated — they’re ongoing, and none of us who benefit from the legacy of white supremacy can escape that fact without denying history itself. We might be tempted to point a finger in one direction, but chances are we find three more pointing back at ourselves. Perhaps most blindingly, Exterminate All the Brutes vibrantly illustrates the role of culture in perpetuating myths of supremacy. Movies, yes; Peck has plenty to say about the images we’ve been served up for virtually all of cinema’s history. But also photographs, and stories, and speeches, and songs, and phrases like “brutes” and “savage,” even the tying of darkness to something brutish and bad and uncivilized. What we see, say, and hear, the pictures we look at and the casual phrases we throw around — they all make it possible for us to accept what seems like it ought to be unacceptable. If a culture is made up of the things that people create to make sense of the world around them, then the opposite is also true: Culture tells people what they ought to believe, and if you tell people long enough that their genetics entitle them to rule over and to “civilize” others, they’ll believe it. An old axiom, drawn from a Faulkner novel and restated in a speech by then-senator Barack Obama, kept flitting through my mind as I watched Exterminate All the Brutes: The past is never dead, and it’s not even the past. Peck is determined that we don’t forget that. At the series’ end, Peck asks if it’s knowledge that we lack — if ignorance is what accounts for the travesties of history. But “the Western world is panicking, a delirious spiraling panicking, talking about the ‘clash of civilizations,’” Peck reminds us, showing images of leaders associated with rising fascist tides and white nationalism today. They are “displaying the limits of superiority,” he says. “Privilege makes you vulnerable.” So no, Exterminate All the Brutes concludes, it’s not knowledge we lack. Peck spends four hours scrupulously laying out that case, and by the end it’s undeniable. Since the Crusades, it’s been “profitable to deny or suppress such knowledge.” We’ve always known what was happening; white supremacy has been in plain sight, not even hiding. The question is, what does the world lack when humanity-denying arrogance goes unconfronted? And where is our courage? All four episodes of Exterminate All the Brutes are streaming on HBO Max.
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“Cancel culture” forgets most racism happens in private
Hans Neleman/Getty Images The debate is focused on public acts of racism. But what about what people say or do when they think no one is listening? “Cancel culture,” a new way to police the boundaries of race, has produced a number of recent high-profile dismissals. Sharon Osbourne exited The Talk after her defense of Piers Morgan’s racist attacks on Meghan Markle led former coworkers to unearth past racist behavior by the cohost. Journalist Donald McNeil resigned from the New York Times after admitting he’d used a racial slur in front of high school students on a newspaper-sponsored trip. Matt James, the first Black male Bachelor on the long-running TV franchise, refused to propose to his chosen partner, Rachel Kirkconnell, after photos of her attending an antebellum-themed party emerged. And journalist Alexi McCammond resigned before she officially began her new job as editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue because anti-Asian tweets she posted when she was 17 resurfaced during a period of heightened anti-Asian attacks. Most of the conversation around these recent stories focuses on whether people should be penalized for racist language or actions of the past — or, in some cases, the impulsive nature of youth, who presumably lack the insight to know that controversial tweets could come back to haunt them someday. But there has been little focus on another lesson learned by all involved and watching: Keep racism private. Racism is not for public consumption, but rather for DMs between like-minded friends, for conversations at dinner parties, for mutterings in hushed tones when people think no one else is listening. Because even after the firings and resignations and apologies, racist views still exist — people are just being asked to push them underground. Which brings us to the question: What is the ultimate goal of punishing outwardly racist acts? Is it to banish people publicly expressing racist opinions, or is it to dismantle what is beyond the public sphere and dig deep into structural racism? Because to do that, we need to do more than simply shun someone — we need to wrestle with the underlying assumptions behind their racist speech or actions. Sociologists have long known that people tend to behave differently in private spaces than they do in public. For example, sociologist Erving Goffman believed the world could be likened to a play, where society and the people within it constitute the actors while sociologists comprise the audience. The front stage is where people are most concerned about impression management, because they can be seen by an audience. Behind the curtain, in the backstage, people relax the rules governing public engagement and let their hair down. And most Americans, when they’re in the backstage, don’t actively disapprove of racism, especially if they benefit from it. Racism exists to preserve the ranking of groups by race, with people of color positioned toward the bottom of this hierarchy, a vantage point from which it is much harder to achieve economic success. Whether they realize it or not, white people, and those scrambling within the hierarchy’s ranks, feel threatened when those at the bottom seek equality — they feel something is being taken away from them. To be sure, most people in 2021 know there is something immoral about openly saying that minorities shouldn’t be afforded opportunities. When surveyed about the outcomes most important to getting ahead — a quality education, a safe neighborhood, an opportunity to work in a job of your choice — most people know to say we should level the playing field. A good education allows people to circumvent discrimination, they say. People have a right to live wherever they want, and the most qualified applicant should get the job. This is what people tell researchers. But their actions prove differently. School segregation persists despite court-ordered desegregation, a consequence of white families abandoning school districts with a non-trivial population of Black students for neighborhoods where the schools are more homogenous. Residential segregation surges on, in part because the average white person searches for a home in only a narrow fraction of the housing market, avoiding listings in neighborhoods where Black people are present in large numbers for the same school reasons. The stereotype that the presence of Black residents pushes up the crime rate is another factor in white avoidance of Black neighborhoods. Employers also continue to prefer white applicants over Black applicants, an indication that racial bias has real-life consequences for Black people in the labor market as well. Even people who believe they are not racist have been shown to hold unconscious racist beliefs. Researchers find that 68 percent of people who take the IAT (Implicit Association Test) think more favorably of white people than they do people of color. When attitudes toward Asian Americans are evaluated separately from other people of color, the majority of test-takers, 63 percent, perceive white people as the “real” Americans, while attributing the label “foreigners” to Asian Americans. These stereotypical beliefs shape people’s expectations of racial minorities. Their accomplishments and failures are attributed to their membership in a racial group, not to their personal talents or failures. When a white man commits a mass shooting, many politicians are quick to bring up potential mental health issues. Yet attacks against Asian Americans escalated in the past year after Trump derisively labeled Covid-19 the “China virus,” pinning blame for the virus on a specific ethnic group. In this way, implicit racism is a factor in the Atlanta shootings and in the perpetuation of inequality in America more generally. Similarly, after 9/11, unprovoked attacks against Muslim Americans increased dramatically. Law-abiding Muslims were being held accountable for the actions of terrorists they did not know and whose extremist beliefs they did not share. Communities of color also feel the need to filter our attitudes about race — or how our race should be presented — through front- and backstage personas. My research shows that middle-class Black people have mastered the strategies needed to negotiate race in predominantly white workplaces and other front stages. They do so by manipulating language, mannerisms, clothing, and credentials in ways that amplify their middle-class status, what I call public identities. They do so with the hope that social class will temporarily supplant race, encouraging white people to treat them fairly. But in the backstage, majority-Black spaces — such as their suburban neighborhoods, social organizations, and churches — middle-class Black people relax these rules. There is no doubt that public racist language should not be normalized. It has the effect of making its targets feel unwelcome and diminished at work, while shopping, on vacation, or as a contestant on a television show (which is the very point). But we should also consider what we are really asking of people when we sanction them for expressing racist beliefs likely held by many others with the foresight to remain silent. While important, it won’t be enough to reverse the 400 years of ongoing racism that they embrace. We are so focused on making an example of people who slip up and say what they — and many Americans — really believe that we have lost sight of the larger goal: creating a society where everyone is treated fairly and has an opportunity to get ahead in life. Racism is embedded in America’s institutions — its schools, churches, politics, housing market, and labor market. Laws can help to reduce discriminatory treatment, but anti-discrimination legislation on its own will not eliminate racism. We have to change the culture reflected in society’s institutions. Organize events in your community to educate people about the consequences of white privilege and to actively work toward building an equitable society. Write to your local officials and your representatives in Congress to let them know you will not support candidates who don’t get behind anti-discrimination policies, like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, and local fair housing policies. Recent public falls from grace due to past racist language are a call to action for all of us, not just those who have fallen. If we really want to create an anti-racist society, let’s work diligently toward that goal. If we are committed to doing it, we could end structural racism. We could. We could dismantle the racial hierarchy in which white privilege masquerades as merit. But if all we seek is to limit racist speech to private dinner parties, then we don’t need to change a thing. Karyn Lacy is a sociologist at the University of Michigan and the author of Blue-Chip Black: Race, Class, and Status in the New Black Middle Class. Find her on Twitter @karynlacy.
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The conflicting autopsies at the heart of the Chauvin trial, explained
Brandon Bell/Getty Images The defense hopes to raise doubts about how George Floyd died. On May 25, 2020, the world witnessed the final moments leading up to George Floyd’s death: Police officer Derek Chauvin pinned a handcuffed Floyd to the ground with his knee for more than nine minutes until he became unresponsive. The bystander video ofthe incident, with Floyd muttering his last words, “I can’t breathe,” sparked racial justice protests around the globe. Now, nearly a year later, Chauvin is on trial facing charges of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. But despite what people saw, both virtually and in person last May, at the center of the trial is the question: What ultimately killed Floyd? The prosecution has argued that it was Chauvin’s knee, constricting Floyd’s neck and airway, that ultimately led to his death. Meanwhile, the defense has argued that it was Floyd’s history of drug use and underlying conditions that caused his death. Two autopsy reports — one by a private medical examiner commissioned by Floyd’s family and another by the Hennepin County Medical Examiner — reached the same conclusion: that Floyd died of homicide, meaning death at the hands of someone else. But the medical examiner report also highlighted that Floyd suffered from other“significant conditions,” such as fentanyl intoxication and recent methamphetamine use. These latter conditions are what the defense is using to argue that Chauvin is not responsible for Floyd’s death. Today Hennepin County chief medical examiner Andrew Baker, who performed the county autopsy, is expected to take the stand. In documents last year, Baker described the “fatal level of fentanyl” in Floyd’s system and told federal investigators that if the victim was “found dead at home alone and no other apparent causes, this could be an acceptable overdose.” But Baker also cautioned, “I am not saying this killed him.” Floyd’s history of drug use is expected to be the most contentious part of the trial. So far, the prosecution had Floyd’s girlfriend take the stand to preemptively humanize his addiction. “Our story is a classic story of how many people get addicted to opioids,” Courtney Ross said during her testimony. “We both had prescriptions but ... we got addicted and tried really hard to break that addiction many times.” The prosecution also brought in witnesses, such as the paramedics and the doctor who treated Floyd as well as a police surgeon and national breathing expert, who have said Floyd died due to a lack of oxygen. Even Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, the city’s first Black chief, testified that Chauvin pinned Floyd for too long and that restraints should have stopped “once Mr. Floyd stopped resisting.” To get a conviction, prosecutors don’t have to prove that Chauvin’s actions were the sole cause of Floyd’s death, according to the state’s jury instruction guidelines. “The fact that other causes contribute to the death does not relieve the defendant of criminal liability,” the guidelines note. By emphasizing Floyd’s drug use, the defense is just trying to muddy the waters, john powell, a law professor at the University of California Berkeley and civil rights scholar, told Vox. “The prosecutors shouldn’t have to make the case that Floyd didn’t have drugs in his body or that drugs were a contributing factor,” powell said. “All they have to do is make the case that Chauvin’s knee on the neck for nine minutes and 20 seconds substantially contributed to Floyd’s death.” How the defense will use the medical examiner’s findings to shield Chauvin Despite similar conclusions ruling Floyd’s death a homicide, there is a key difference in accounts of what caused it. The Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office states that the cause of death was a “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression” — which means physical restraint (handcuffs and Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck) was a significant factor in Floyd’s cardiac arrest. But the private autopsy report found the cause was actually “mechanical asphyxia” that made Floyd’s heart stop, implying that there were no underlying conditions that may have played a role. In their opening statement, prosecutors said they would make the case that Floyd died of asphyxia, or insufficient oxygen, which was not mentioned in the county report. On Monday, the prosecution brought to the stand Bradford Wankhede Langenfeld, a senior resident at the Hennepin County Medical Center who worked to recover Floyd but eventually pronounced him dead. Langenfeld said that based on the information he had, asphyxia was “more likely than other possibilities” to have caused Floyd’s cardiac arrest. But under cross-examination by the defense, Chauvin’s attorney Eric Nelson stuck with questioning Floyd’s use of drugs and asked if high levels of fentanyl and methamphetamine could also cause insufficient oxygen. The doctor agreed. Martin J. Tobin, a pulmonologist and breathing expert, offered perhaps the most striking medical testimony in the prosecution’s case. On Thursday, Tobin took the stand and provided a detailed account of how Floyd died — including that Chauvin had placed more than 90 pounds of Floyd’s neck and that 85 percent of Floyd’s airways were restricted. Ultimately, Tobin said, Floyd died from “a low level of oxygen” caused by police restraint. “A healthy person subjected to what Mr. Floyd was subjected to would have died,” he said. Tobin pushed back against Nelson’s questioning about Floyd’s drug use, saying he saw no evidence of an overdose in the footage, as Floyd seemed to be breathing fine before police restrained him. Seven medical experts who spoke to the Washington Post last month also warned against calling the situation an overdose, arguing that Floyd wouldn’t have had the same energy or behavior interacting with the police as he did if he were on his way to an overdose. The defense’s argument relies largely on Floyd’s history of drug use and the result of the Hennepin County toxicology report. In December, Baker reviewed his findings with the Minnesota attorney general’s office. A document summarizing the meeting noted, “Dr. Baker offered that one possibility for the pathway of Floyd’s death is that Floyd’s heart was starting to fail because of the stress, drugs, enlarged heart, and [heart] disease. He said that once the heart starts to fail … one of the symptoms is the perception that you cannot breathe.” In his testimony, Tobin also rebutted the argument about breathing “perception.” Just because Floyd had enough oxygen to say “I can’t breathe” doesn’t mean he had enough to survive, Tobin said. The defense’s strategy of focusing on Floyd’s drug use has drawn parallels to a long history of painting Black men killed by police as criminals and drug addicts.“Part of the [defense’s] argument is really just saying Floyd is not worthy of our concern and respect, and you saw this on Fox News like ‘why are people so upset this guy has a criminal record, he was on drugs, he was trying to pass off a fake dollar bill, he’s not a hero,’” powell said. “It’s like immediately Floyd became on trial. It’s not the police on trial; it’s the person who has been killed who is on trial. It’s Michael Brown. It’s Eric Garner. … It’s Rodney King.” While the prosecution has called a handful of medical experts to the stand so far, the defense has 15 medical experts queued up as potential witnesses when it presents its case next week — though it is unknown how many will testify. powell notes that multiple medical testimonies may confuse and overwhelm the jury. “The defense has to prove that there’s reasonable or some doubt,” powell said. “Sometimes, what lawyers do is that if you have good facts, you try to confuse people, so any contradiction or anything to make the jury question like, ‘When you look at all these things are you sure this is what caused his death?’” The trial’s outcome may hinge on whether the prosecution has built a strong enough case with medical and police testimony to erase doubt that Chauvin played “a substantial causal factor in causing” Floyd’s death. The proceedings are expected to last another two weeks.
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Where Americans stand on policing today
People protest the Kentucky grand jury decision in the case of Breonna Taylor’s death by Louisville police. | Robert Gauthier/ Los Angeles Times/Getty Images Americans overwhelmingly support reforms — but many still trust police. Roughly a year after the start of a national reckoning over police violence and racism toward Black Americans, support for reforms remains strong — as does broad trust in police, according to a new poll from Vox and Data for Progress. The data comes as the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin, who has been charged with murder in the death of George Floyd, has prompted renewed discussions about how policing still needs to change. Per the Vox/Data for Progress survey, conducted between April 2 and 5 of 1,209 likely voters, a majority of voters would like to see lawmakers pass police reforms in Congress that have been stalled for months: Nearly all of the key provisions of Democrats’ police reform bill — the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act — have a majority of voter support, including a federal ban on chokeholds (71 percent), mandated body cameras for federal officers (84 percent), a prohibition of racial profiling (71 percent), and an end to “qualified immunity” for officers in legal cases (59 percent). Ethan Winter/Data for Progress These figures are consistent with the support that many of these reforms had in July 2020 as well, according to a survey conducted by the University of Maryland School of Public Policy last summer. A majority of people also believe law enforcement is racially biased: 52 percent agree that police are more likely to use deadly force on Black Americans than white Americans, though this varies by party and race. Eighty-four percent of Democrats believe this, compared to 45 percent of independents, and 24 percent of Republicans. Eighty percent of Black Americans, compared to 61 percent of Latino Americans and 46 percent of white Americans also agree with this statement. At the same time, trust in police is still relatively strong: 63 percent of people say most officers can be trusted, a figure that’s comparable to the 70 percent who said the same in a June 2020 Data for Progress poll, though it varies significantly across party, race, and age lines. Only 48 percent of Democrats say police can be trusted compared to 78 percent of Republicans; meanwhile, 32 percent of Black Americans and 38 percent of Latino Americans say the same, compared to 72 percent of white Americans. Younger people, too, are much less likely to trust police: Just 30 percent of those ages 18-29 trust police, compared to 73 percent of those who are 45 and older. The results of the survey indicate that the backing for police reforms hasn’t wavered since last year — which could put pressure on lawmakers to get something done this term — though they also reveal that policing as an institution still has a lot of residual trust, especially among white Americans. Most people back reallocating some police funding for mental health services In addition to support for federal reforms, most voters appear to back changes that could happen at the local level, where many policing decisions are made. “Out of the nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the US, a dozen or so are federal,” Vox’s German Lopez has previously explained. “It’s at the local and state level, then, where reforms can and should happen.” Many activists are pushing for more sweeping changes than those covered in congressional legislation thus far, including the “defunding of police,” which is essentially the reallocation of resources from law enforcement to other social services. A majority of voters surveyed favor some reallocation: 63 percent agree that some funding should be shifted from police departments to establish a new agency of first responders who focus on mental health and addiction-related needs, including 83 percent of Democrats, 60 percent of independents, and 43 percent of Republicans. Already, some cities across the US, including San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Austin, have begun to reduce their annual police budgets, moving part of this funding to help provide everything from mental health assistance to emergency medical services, in response to activist pressure. According to this poll, efforts like these have strong public support — echoing findings from a 2020 PerryUndem poll covered by Vox’s Anna North, which found that backing for such changes varied depending on how they were surveyed. The results in the Data for Progress/Vox survey differ, however, from a March 2021 poll by USA Today/Ipsos, which found that 18 percent of people supported the “defund the police” movement when asked explicitly about it, and 43 percent of people supported redirecting police funding to social services. The Data for Progress poll asked respondents about another policing issue in the news: Derek Chauvin’s murder trial. Most respondents say he should be found guilty for his role in George Floyd’s death: 68 percent of people feel this way, including 91 percent of Democrats, 63 percent of independents, and 46 percent of Republicans. Policing will continue to be a focus of attention in the coming months: Chauvin’s trial will span a few weeks before the jury returns a verdict, and Congress is slated to consider police reform once more as well. Then there is the anniversary of Floyd’s death in May, during which Americans may reflect on how far the county has truly come since last year’s massive social justice movement began.
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Why it feels like mushrooms are everywhere
From mushroom-based protein powder to psychedelics, the era of Big Shroom is upon us. | Getty Images Welcome to the mushroom renaissance. The anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing believes humans have a lot to learn from mushrooms. In the prologue of her book The Mushroom at the End of the World, Tsing explores how mushrooms are capable of thriving even in conditions of precarity; she remarks that when she encounters one in the woods, she realizes “the good fortune of just happening to be there.” In 2021, mushrooms are experiencing a curious renaissance in the American consciousness, just as we approach the tail end of a devastating pandemic. And much like a forest after the rain, mushrooms seem to be suddenly, silently sprouting up everywhere — and we no longer necessarily need good fortune to encounter them. On Instagram, wellness influencers are peddling mushroom-based protein powder, coffee alternatives, and elixirs. Local grocery stores and farmers markets are selling not just whole mushrooms but also mushroom jerky, burger patties, chips, and even adaptogenic syrup. Mushrooms have been championed as viable leather alternatives for trendy bags and used in biodegradable packaging. Their adorable blob-shaped bodies have served as inspiration for one of the of-the-moment home trends, the mushroom lamp based on the 1970s Murano design. And then there are psychedelic mushrooms, which have enjoyed ever-more-mainstream popularity over the past few years. View this post on Instagram A post shared by Black Magic (@blackmagicalchemy) Of course, mushrooms have been around longer than a list of recent trends can capture. For millennia, mushrooms have been foraged, cooked, eaten whole, steeped into teas, used as remedies, and applied medicinally, among many other use cases invented by indigenous people and cultures, from Asia to Latin America. The capped, fleshy fungi (of which there are tens of thousands of species) are capable of growing in various natural habitats: forests, parks, meadows, gardens, and even places suffering from ecological destruction. Mushrooms have a versatile, resilient history. But while they have occupied a central role in food, medicinal, and religious traditions worldwide, they haven’t exactly been at the forefront of Western culture. Medicinal mushrooms were considered “an eclectic science” among scientists and doctors in the West for decades. Researchers Paul Stamets and Heather Zwickey offered an explanation for this dismissal, despite mushrooms’ ancient medicinal roots: “That some mushrooms can feed you, some can heal you, some can kill you, and some can send you on a spiritual journey speaks of their diverse chemical constituents. From an evolutionary and survival point of view, it is safer to avoid that which is poorly understood yet so powerful.” Existing out of sight and out of mind, mushrooms spent decades slipping into relative obscurity. So why the resurgence now? Is it simply that it was time for the ubiquitous fungi to get their moment in the sun, after the wellness-industrial complex had exhausted so many other lesser-known ingredients? Not quite: While the shroom boom is a multifaceted and hard-to-trace phenomenon, a number of factors have made this the ideal time for its ascension. Mushrooms’ extreme versatility; the pandemic driving people outdoors, resulting in a more back-to-nature interest in foraging; the passage of laws decriminalizing psychedelics in states like Oregon; and the pleasing, organic aesthetic of the fungi itself have all resulted in a moment where it’s hard to ignore the humble shroom. Americans are eating more mushrooms, about three pounds per person per year, and consumption has increased each year since 2013. According to Britt Bunyard, the editor-in-chief of Fungi Magazine and director of the Telluride Mushroom Festival, there has been a marked increase in foraging over the past decade — for wild foods, berries, and mushrooms, in general. The pandemic has only exacerbated this interest: Last year, a record number of Americans visited national parks and spent vacation time in the great outdoors, escaping the once-crowded centers of city life. People were not just camping, Bunyard said, based on his foraging experiences: They also began searching for mushrooms. Fungi Magazine saw a “dramatic uptick in subscribers” from all over the world last year, which befuddled Bunyard, since it’s a small trade publication. Bunyard has no unifying theory that neatly chronicles this resurgent interest in mushrooms in the West; like many trends, it’s a reflection of our “unprecedented times.” Under the circumstances of the pandemic, it’s possible that this newfound love is born out of a desire to be self-sustaining and practical by growing (and regrowing) one’s food. Urban dwellers unlikely to casually encounter mushrooms in nature are able to grow their own mushrooms through prepackaged kits, or purchase their own mushroom-shaped lamps and footstools. It’s a real-life application of “cottagecore,” the digital aesthetic movement devoted to fetishizing the countryside and bucolic lifestyles. View this post on Instagram A post shared by tufting my dreams ☁️ (@amygemmelldesign) The popularity of cottagecore dovetailed with the quarantine ennui from spending most of our days indoors. As we approach a summer that’s predicted to be “a cross between the Roaring ’20s and the Summer of Love,” our home interiors reflect this anticipation. The popularity of the blobject and other mushroom-like furnishings makes our living spaces appear more comforting, a gentle touch to soften the harsh, minimal edges of the 2010s. These whimsical, amorphously shaped designs also evoke a sense of simmering chaos, reminiscent of the psychedelic interior trends of the 1960s and ’70s. We are simultaneously nostalgic for the past and eager for the future. Mushrooms, in many ways, reflect cottagecore’s romantic essence: the glorification of nature, indulged through foraging, gardening — or embarking on a hallucinogenic trip. Journalist Michael Pollan’s 2018 bestselling book How to Change Your Mind, according to Bunyard, sparked mainstream acceptance toward psychedelic use. Even Americans who scorned recreational drug use were, at the very least, intrigued. “Everyone started asking me about psychedelics after Pollan’s book came out,” Bunyard told me. “It’s really changed how people understand their history and how these substances came to be banned in the 1970s.” Within the past five years, the Food and Drug Administration has steadily granted breakthrough therapy status to drugs that were banned in the 1970s and ’80s, like MDMA, ketamine, and psilocybin. This designation has allowed organizations to develop drugs and pursue clinical trials on the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs. In November, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms, following in the footsteps of cities like Denver, Oakland, and Santa Cruz in 2019. In mid-March, Oregon’s governor announced that the state will form a Psilocybin Advisory Board, which will establish a framework for the drug’s therapeutic use in licensed facilities. Beyond state-approved and research-based psilocybin use, regular people, too, have developed a fantastical interest in the drug — for its healing capabilities and power to transcend reality. How could they not? It’s a fungus straight out of a fairy tale. Shroom trips are documented to be vivid out-of-body experiences, bordering in the realm of the mystical. “It seemed as though I was viewing a world of which I was not a part and with which I could not hope to establish contact,” wrote R. Gordon Wasson in a widely read 1957 Life Magazine article on magic mushrooms. “There I was, poised in space, a disembodied eye, invisible, incorporeal, seeing but not seen.” Even in monitored clinical settings, participants have “profoundly meaningful experiences.” And while full-dose trips incapacitate people for hours at a time, microdosing — taking tiny amounts of psychedelics to stimulate a subtle buzz — has gained steam in certain circles, particularly among techies and creatives. It’s a fungus straight out of a fairy tale There is a current race to patent psychedelics through for-profit ventures led (unsurprisingly) by Silicon Valley. Peter Thiel, among many other angel investors, has backed Compass Pathways and ATAI Life Sciences, biotech companies that are developing psychedelic and non-psychedelic mental health treatments. ATAI is worth $2 billion after its latest round of funding in early March, and Compass Pathways went public last year, although it has been scrutinized for looking to patent basic aspects of psychedelic therapy. The for-profit psychedelic field, as Vice’s Shayla Love explained, is “trying to patent ‘novel’ uses to build profitable patent libraries.” Some psychedelic advocates have disavowed this for-profit approach, arguing that some of these patents are privatizing information already in the public domain. Meanwhile, there’s a bubbling cottage industry of guided “therapy” clinics and pricey psilocybin retreats for those who wish to experience psychedelics around trained professionals, even while these drugs remain illegal in most parts of the US. Vox’s Sean Illing previously attended such a session in San Diego, writing: “This new world of psychedelic-assisted therapy functions as a kind of parallel mental health service. Access to it remains limited, but it’s evolving quicker than you might expect.” This renaissance in psychedelic research and therapy also coincides with the rise of the 21st-century wellness movement. It has, for better or worse, reignited belief in these alternative practices. The pandemic has only further commodified self-care, and niche wellness products, brands, and marketable “experiences” have proliferated alongside our health-adjacent anxieties. There’s money to be made from all kinds of mushrooms, not just the hallucinogenic ones. The psychedelic craze, according to Bunyard, overshadowed the usefulness of fungi like chaga, lion’s mane, and reishi, which have become key ingredients in dietary supplements and meat substitutes. The global mushroom market (which excludes psilocybin mushrooms) is expected to be worth more than $50 billion by 2025, according to the market research firm Grand View Research. Andrea Hernández, a food and beverage trend analyst and author of the Snaxshot newsletter, attributes the shroom boom to the “Goop-fication of niche vegetables and fungi.” Mushrooms are a gold mine, given their versatility: Different types of mushrooms boast various vitamins or health benefits, and their chewy texture allows them to thrive on the alternative market as substitutes for coffee, juice, and meat. Given how the meat industry’s supply chain was briefly jolted by the pandemic, the alternative meat market has seen an uptick in consumer interest and venture capital investment. Mushrooms have certainly benefited from this explosion of plant-based products, but it’s uncertain whether most Americans will ever commit fully to a meatless diet. Regardless, mushrooms are special. They have been elevated to the coveted superfood category, an “it” ingredient to be extracted, transformed, and commodified into all sorts of trendy wellness products, such as protein powders, supplement pills, coffee alternatives, beer, and other millennial-branded beverages and tinctures. (There’s a great, comprehensive list in this TASTE article about the shroom boom.) They’ve become mainstays in the direct-to-consumer food world through brands like Pan’s mushroom jerky, and attracted the attention and investments of established consumer packaged goods brands. View this post on Instagram A post shared by R A I N B O (@rainbomushrooms) From a nutritional standpoint, mushrooms are generally good for you; they’re low in calories, rich in protein and fiber, and high in antioxidants. The claims marketed in these various shroom-based products, however, are hard to prove. Some beverages (mushroom beer) and snacks are entirely made from mushroom powder or extracts, while others (MUDWTR, a coffee alternative) advertise the shroom label while mixing in other herbs and spices. Hernández worries that this vague, buzzy language could turn off customers and lead to backlash, distrust, or derision toward such products, much like CBD. “There are brands who say ‘Your sheets have CBD,’ or ‘This athleisure wear has CBD,’ and that usage creates a bad reputation for the term, similar to how ‘organic’ has little meaning to most consumers nowadays,” Hernández said. “We’re going to need curation and guidance, so that this attention doesn’t hurt the food and beverage makers who are putting a lot of thought into their products.” If history is any indication, though, our cultural intrigue and reverence toward mushrooms will likely supersede the marketing efforts bolstered by wellness brands. Mushrooms are ubiquitous, and they remain elusive, growing in unexpected parts of forests, among dead and decaying trees and organisms. “Maybe we are drawn to mushrooms because we think of them as some higher power,” Hernández said. It’s one theory. Mushrooms offer a promise of transcendence, a small template for living and dying in a precarious world.
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The effects of Black Lives Matter protests
More than 1,000 people marched through downtown Brooklyn, New York, in November 2019 to protest against police brutality. | Erik McGregor/Getty Images Research shows places with BLM protests from 2014 to 2019 saw a reduction in police homicides but an uptick in murders. There’s long been a fierce debate about the effect of Black Lives Matter protests on the lethal use of force by police. A new study, one of the first to make a rigorous academic attempt to answer that question, found that the protests have had a notable impact on police killings. For every 4,000 people who participated in a Black Lives Matter protest between 2014 and 2019, police killed one less person. Travis Campbell, a PhD student in economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, released his preliminary findings on the Social Science Research network as a preprint, meaning the study has yet to receive a formal peer review. While Campbell’s research does not encompass the events of summer 2020, George Floyd’s killing and the subsequent wave of protests became potentially the largest movement in American history, the sudden growth of which relied on a wave of anger and grief at the police homicides Americans are continually greeted with on the news. Opinion columnists, activists, lawmakers, and even the president of the United States (current and former) have weighed in on these protests and what the appropriate policy changes should be. But first, it’s important to grapple with how the protests have already changed policing. From 2014 to 2019, Campbell tracked more than 1,600 BLM protests across the country, largely in bigger cities, with nearly 350,000 protesters. His main finding is a 15 to 20 percent reduction in lethal use of force by police officers — roughly 300 fewer police homicides — in census places that saw BLM protests. Campbell’s research also indicates that these protests correlate with a 10 percent increase in murders in the areas that saw BLM protests. That means from 2014 to 2019, there were somewhere between 1,000 and 6,000 more homicides than would have been expected if places with protests were on the same trend as places that did not have protests. Campbell’s research does not include the effects of last summer’s historic wave of protests because researchers do not yet have all the relevant data. It’s worth noting that Campbell didn’t subject the homicide findings to the same battery of statisticaltests as he did the police killings since they were not the main focus of his research. (He intends to do more research on how these protests affected crime rates.) But his research on homicides aligns with other evidence. Omar Wasow, a professor at Princeton University who has done seminal research on the effect of protests, told Vox that the results are “entirely plausible” and “not surprising,” considering existing protest research. The reasons for this rise in murders are not fully known, but one possible explanation is that police morale drops following scrutiny, leading officers to reduce their efforts and thereby emboldening criminals. Another is that members of the public voluntarily withdraw from engagements with the police after a police homicide delegitimizes the justice system in their eyes. (More on this below.) Protests can do a lot. They can raise awareness, create solidarity or undermine existing relationships, change public opinion, strengthen or weaken institutions, and affect the outcome of elections. But,according to this study,BLM protests also produce their intended effect. A few quick notes on methodology It’s important to understand how Campbell conducted his research and the potential pitfalls when trying to quantify and isolate how protests can affect policy. Researchers who study crime, police lethal force, and protests are hampered by something out of their control: The underlying data can be faulty. For lethal force data, there’s no federal database to turn to. Instead, Campbell and other researchers have to rely on nonprofit- and media-collected data, which has some drawbacks. This means Campbell may be missing some police homicides in his research. Harvard University sociologist Joscha Legewie told Scientific American that the study’s design is “‘very well suited’ for the kind of data Campbell” is looking at. Additionally, there could be something systematically different about the places that have BLM protests that make them more poised for increased police accountability than places without. For instance, a new mayor or district attorney who championed police reform gets elected and then protest movements mobilize to ensure their desired reforms are implemented. To account for this problem, Campbell controls for various factors — from the localities’unemployment rate to the Democratic vote share in the 2008 presidential election — to try to make sure he is isolating the effect of BLM protests on police homicides and other murders. But, unless you’re able to conduct a randomized controlled trial (which is impossible for studies like these), there could always be hidden variables that researchers are unable to account for. To try to further prove his findings are sound, Campbell also shows that before 2014 there were almostparallel trends of police homicides in both the places that would go on to see protests and places that wouldn’t. That suggests that what changed in 2014 and beyond — regarding both the reduction in police homicides and the increase in murder —is likely the effect of the BLM protests, not some other hidden variable. Campbell notes that “BLM did not transform into the protests movement it is known as today until the police killings of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO in 2014,” which is why he begins his research with that year. The effect of BLM protests on police lethal use of force The major finding in the paper is that places with BLM protests experienced a statistically significant decline in police homicides. Further, the biggest declines are when protests are relatively large and/or frequent. Campbell also observes that, over time, the gap in police homicide rateswidens between places with and without protests. In year zero, he finds a 13 percent drop in police homicides; by year four, that decline expands by 14 percentage points. That means it’s likely that the effect of BLM protests is strong enough to lower the number of police homicides for several years. Campbell believes there are three potential mechanisms that could have led to this decline, none of which are mutually exclusive. First, he observed an increase in the use of body cameras and different types of community policing. It’s possible that, in response to BLM protests, police departments implemented reforms that reduced lethal use of force. Campbell’s research finds a significant increase in the likelihood of an agency obtaining body-worn cameras (55.3 percent), patrol officers within a designated geographic area (20.6 percent), and SARA officers, a type of community policing (57.5 percent). The existing literature on body cameras is mixed, though, undercutting the idea that widespread body camera use alone is the driving force behind declining instances of police brutality. A Brookings Institution expert explained that while randomized trials “in American and European police departments found that body worn camera’s reduced the number of complaints filed by local residents against the police ... they showed mixed effects on use of force by and against police officers.” In a major 2017 study conducted in Washington, DC, the researchers found that “the behavior of officers who wore cameras all the time was indistinguishable from the behavior of those who never wore cameras.” One bright spot in the research on body camerasis a recent job market paper by University of Chicago economics researcher Taeho Kim; the nationwide study found that the use of these cameras reduced police-involved homicides by 43 percent. As for other elements of this possible explanation, the research is less clear.Campbell writes that the lethal force impact of expanding community policing and patrols is “understudied,” but activists have frequently called for community policing in response to instances of police brutality. Wasow explained that it may not be the specific reforms per se but that the increase of administrative or training changes indicates more people are taking accountability seriously within the justice system. Accountability culture is hard to measure, so researchers can observe it in an uptick in measures like body-worn cameras or community policing. If this is true, police reform may have less to do with specific policies than just an increased commitment to holding officers to a higher standard. The figures show the location of police homicides and Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests from 2000 to 2019. Blue denotes BLM protests. Red indicates a police homicide. The second mechanism is that civilians are becoming more wary of the police in the aftermath of these protests and the publicizing of instances of police homicides. That could mean people call 911 less or engage with police officers less of their own volition, which has the effect of reducing civilian/police interactions and thereby fatal interactions as well. Finally, the third mechanism is something called the Ferguson effect: the supposition that protests against police brutality reduce officer morale and effort due to the “intensified scrutiny from the community and media.” In other words, officers stop doing their jobs as aggressively. This can lead to reduced arrests, especially for less serious crimes like disorderly conduct or marijuana possession. Deepak Premkumar, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, found in recently released research that police do reduce their efforts following officer-involved fatalities: Theft arrests fall by 7 percent, and for “quality of life crimes” like disorderly conduct or marijuana possession, arrests decline by up to 23 percent (weed possession alone declines by up to 33 percent). It’s these latter two mechanisms that could explain the increase in murder following BLM protests. Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images A St. Louis County Police officer is seen at the conclusion of a protest march on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2015. Did BLM protests lead to an increase in murder? This is where things get more speculative. Campbell’s study finds that BLM protests correlate with a 10 percent increase in murder. That is, there were a few thousand more homicides in the places where there were BLM protests than would have been expected if those places followed the same trends as the ones that didn’t see protests. We don’t know why BLM protests correlated with an increase in the murder rate, and there’s not a lot of research in this space to help guide us. Additionally, Campbell’s research question was focused on the effect of BLM protests on police homicides, so these other observed changes regarding other homicides were not subjected to the same robustness tests. A number of factors could be driving the increase. Premkumar, who studied the Ferguson effect, also observed a “significant rise” (10 to 17 percent) in murders and robberies following highly publicized officer-involved fatalities. But from talking with experts, there are a few ways we can understand what may be happening here. First, it’s possible criminal activity rises in areas that have seen protests because people stop calling the police or working with them out of fear or anger — thereby emboldening criminal behavior. Moreover, some experts believe people will try to resolve their disputes extrajudicially if the system loses legitimacy following a police homicide. If this were happening, we would expect to see a reduction in the reported rates oflow-level crime — fewer low-level crimes would be reported relative to high-level crimes like murders. Murders are less likely to go unnoticed because, well, there’s a missing person and/or a body. So the murder rate is usually the best indicator of what’s actually going on with crime writ large. Campbell observes a significant increase in the murder rate but a simultaneous 8.4 percent decrease in total property crimes reported. That is consistent with people voluntarily reducing interactions with the police, and other criminologists are in favor of this explanation. However, research by Michael Zoorob, a PhD student at Harvard University, finds that “across a large number of cities, incidents, and analytic strategies well-publicized brutality incidents do not reduce 911 calls to report common property or violent crimes,” casting doubt on the idea that police homicides reduce voluntary civilian engagement with police. One other possible explanation for the increased murder rate is that law enforcement officials are the ones voluntarily reducing their interactions with the community and as a result emboldening criminal activity. One way to observe whether police are reducing their efforts is to see whether the share of property crimes cleared falls over this period. In other words, are police not trying as hard— either because they are demoralized or angry at public scrutiny of their behavior —to solve low-level crimes that are reported to them? Campbell observes a 5.5 percent decline in the share of property crimes cleared, which is consistent with police reducing their efforts immediately following the protests. The good news is that even if Campbell’s finding about the increase in murders following BLM protests holds up to further scrutiny, the effect doesn’t appear to last for long. By year four, Campbell no longer observes a statistically significant increase in murders, indicating that whatever is going on with murders is hopefully not long term. None of Campbell’s data covers the protests in 2020 or the rise in murders in 2020. As German Lopez explains for Vox, “some experts have cited the protests this summer over the police killings of George Floyd and others,” but Covid-19 made the year so unusual that experts are cautious about drawing any conclusions yet.
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How the US could make its new climate target fair — to the rest of the world
Damaged homes in East Flores on April 5, 2021, after Cyclone Seroja dumped rain on Indonesia and East Timor. | Reynold Atagoran/AFP via Getty Images Biden is about to announce a new 2030 climate target. Will it go far enough? On April 22, President Biden will convene global leaders for a virtual climate summit in a bid to reassert US leadership and motivate countries to cut emissions much more aggressively. Of course, the US is only just recommitting to climate action itself after a long leadership vacuum. During his presidency, Donald Trump tore down dozens of environmental regulations and withdrew the US from the Paris climate agreement, undermining global progress to reduce emissions. Now, to reassure the world that the US takes the climate threat seriously, Biden plans to announce a new 2030 climate target under the Paris agreement ahead of the summit. The administration is considering a goal to cut emissions somewhere between 48 and 53 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, Bloomberg reported Wednesday. This is in line with proposals from many green groups, which have coalesced around a 50 percent reduction target. While that goal will require significant changes, to take place in less than a decade, many recent studies show it is within reach. But a new report, produced by a group of environmental organizations including Friends of the Earth and the youth-drivenSunrise Movement, approaches the question from a different angle. Instead of determining what is feasible for the US, they start by asking: What should the US’s responsibility be in reducing global emissions to keep the planet from warming to dangerous levels? The result is a much more audacious vision for US emissions reductions in 2030: 195 percent. That’s right — they are proposing that the US’s true responsibility isn’t just to eliminate all its emissions by 2030 (which would be 100 percent) but to go even further. The advocacy groups acknowledge that it isn’t actually feasible for the US to pull this off within its own borders. Instead, they suggest that the country reduce its domestic carbon footprint by 70 percent and contribute the remaining 125 percent by financing developing countries’ emissions reductions. The authorsargue that if the US hit these targets, it would be contributing its “fair share” toward tackling climate change, as the world’s largest historical emitter and wealthiest nation. Still, the number stretches the imagination compared to other proposals that hew closer to the political reality. But that’s the point. “If we frame our understanding always relative to what we can actually imagine this current Senate doing, it’s not a discussion about what’s actually needed,” said Sivan Kartha, a US-based senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute and co-author of the report. Biden’s new target will inevitably be politically constrained. But as we hurtle toward a future climate that will unleash severe impacts on the people least responsible for the problem, it is worth pausing to consider this question of fairness further. A broad vision of US climate responsibility — and how much it might cost To come up with an idea of what the US owes the rest of the world in the climate fight, a broader coalition of civil society groups under the US Climate Action Network met to forge the 195 percent proposal last summer. The process, they argued, should start by casting back in time. As the animation below shows, the US stands out as the biggest historical emitter by a wide margin. Animation: The countries with the largest cumulative CO2 emissions since 1750Ranking as of the start of 2019:1) US – 397GtCO22) CN – 214Gt3) fmr USSR – 1804) DE – 905) UK – 776) JP – 587) IN – 518) FR – 379) CA – 3210) PL – 27— Carbon Brief (@CarbonBrief) April 23, 2019 The groups chose to look at the emissions since 1950, when the global economy and emissions really took off. The cumulative emissions figure is relevant because once carbon dioxide molecules enter the atmosphere, they linger for hundreds of years — so past emissions are still very much shaping the trajectory of global warming. The other major factor in the coalition’s fairness calculation is the capacity any given nation has to tackle the problem. They use a nation’s income as an approximation for capacity but exclude income from individuals below a certain poverty level. Between these two factors, the coalition concluded that the US is responsible for 39 percent of the global effort to tackle climate change. (You can play around with the Climate Equity calculator to see the assumptions behind the final outcome.) To take on that share of the burden, the US would have to reduce emissions by 195 percent, or 14 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent, by 2030 from the 2005 level in order to stay in line with what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has showed is required to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. But, as mentioned above, the coalition proposes the US only cut its own emissions 70 percent, or by about 4 gigatons domestically. “The 70 percent is not our fair share, it’s what we can manage to do if we really put our minds and muscles to it with the US proper, and the rest of that fair share [...] would need to be done by cooperating with other countries — poorer countries,” Kartha explained. USA Fair Shares NDC Report As for the US responsibility to help other countries, the new report also proposed a corresponding financial commitment. Using the lowest estimate for the cost of reducing a ton of carbon, the authors calculate that it would cost the US $570 billion by 2030to help other countries reduce emissions enough to meet their 195 percent goal. But to also begin to compensate countries for the impacts of climate change already in motion from current warming,they argue that the US should funnel similar amounts to adaptation and “loss and damage.” While funding adaptation would help countries reduce suffering caused by a warmer climate in the near term, funding for “loss and damage” would serve as a form of reparations to compensate countries for irrecoverable damage, say, from sea level rise. The total,then, would be somewhere in the order of $1.6 trillion by 2030. These are just initial estimates because these losses are so difficult to calculate. “The questions on the finance side are actually way more — painfully — complex,” said Kartha. To give some perspective, Biden recently proposed spending roughly $1 trillion on the US clean energy transition over the next eight years, and progressives have called for that amount to be spent annually. Still, $1.6 trillion for other countries is way beyond anything the US has ever openlycontemplated. So far, we have only given $1 billiontotalin funding to the Green Climate Fund, the United Nations mechanism that supports developing countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change, because Trump refused to provide further support. These numbers might be very ambitious — but the US should move toward them The coalition isn’t entirely alone in pushing for a much more ambitious 2030 target. The think tanks Climate Analytics and the NewClimate Institute also proposed a similar fair share: 75 percent for domestic cuts, with further support given to overseas efforts. But the question looms: How technically feasible would achieving such a target be? The new report doesn’t reference any particular study informing the choice of a 70 percent domestic target. A 71 percent target was featured in Sen. Bernie Sanders’s climate plan as a presidential candidate. Most studies have focused on lower targets, although engineer-inventor Saul Griffith has modeleda path to 70 to 80 percent cuts by 2035. Dan Lashof, US director for the World Resources Institute, which has recommended a target of 50 percent, said, “Scientifically there is a good case for going much further. I personally don’t see the political or economic forces aligning to get us up into the range of 60 to 70 percent reductions from 2005 levels by 2030. I would love to be wrong, but that’s my judgment.” Just reaching 50 percent cuts will require a significant economy-wide effort, including phasing outall US coal plants by 2030. And the Trump years have put the US at a disadvantage compared to other developed countries like the UK and EU where a stable political commitment to climate action has allowed governments to target 68 and 55 percent cuts, respectively. “There’s no question that the four years under the Trump administration put the US behind the eight-ball and makes the job harder,” said Lashof. Karen Orenstein, the climate and energy director of the environmental nonprofit Friends of the Earth, who also co-authored the new report, acknowledged that it is unlikely to gain traction politically. “I don’t expect many members of Congress to embrace these numbers, but I also think that you see more new and existing progressive members who are talking about a sea change in how we approach these things,” she said. While Biden himself is unlikely to embrace the proposal, Orenstein argued that it reflects his approach to addressing racial and social injustice through climate action domestically, including by allocating 40 percent of the benefits of climate investments to disadvantaged communities. To be a global climate leader, Biden should extend that focus on equity overseas as well. “Biden so far had done a good job talking about centering environmental justice,” she said, “and you can’t restrict that to US borders.”
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The Derek Chauvin trial won’t make cops start policing themselves
Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo (pictured above) testified against Derek Chauvin in his murder trial on April 5. | Stephen Maturen/Getty Images The officers who testified against Chauvin are simply protecting their legacies. On Monday, prosecutor Steve Schleicher led a line of questioning that perhaps stands as his team’s strongest case against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin so far — not because the witness’s testimony was especially riveting but because it was coming from Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo. That the department’s highest-ranking officer was testifying against a team member immediately set the trial apart. In fact, nine other officers from the Minneapolis Police Department have testified against Chauvin in the past week. While Arradondo, the department’s first Black chief, has testified against an officer before (as assistant chief in a highly publicized 2019 case that involved the shooting of an unarmed woman), it’s rare for so many officers to take the stand against a onetime colleague. During his testimony, Arradondo was asked about the nature of the trainings that MPD officers receive, with specific attention paid to MPD policies and protocol like use of force, deescalation, procedural justice, and crisis intervention. And Arradondo did not hold back. When asked whether the force that Chauvin used against George Floyd was consistent the MPD policy that authorizes use of reasonable force, he responded, “It is not,” and went on to say of Chauvin’s behavior: “That is not what we teach and that should be condoned.” To a similar question, Arradondo said that he “absolutely” agreed that Chauvin’s restraint violated policy since Chauvin did not apply “light to moderate pressure” on Floyd’s neck. “That in no way, shape, or form is anything that is by policy. It is not part of our training. It is certainly not part of our ethics or our values.” The moment represented a triumph for the prosecution, bolstered by other police testimony so far. The previous day, three officers — including Chauvin’s former supervisor, retired Sgt. David Ploeger; the longest-serving officer at MPD, Lt. Richard Zimmerman; and Inspector Katie Blackwell, who ran the department’s training program when Floyd was killed — all testified against Chauvin’s neck restraint of Floyd, saying it was “uncalled for” and “totally unnecessary.” And in the days after the police chief took the stand, additional officers testified for the prosecution. The rare testimony from several officers has led viewers to question whether the “blue wall of silence” — an unwritten gag rule among officers to band together and stay silent when one of their own is under fire for misconduct — was beginning to crumble, a moment of hope that signals a shift that more officers may now be willing to intervene when they observe their colleagues engaging in wrongdoing. But adifferentreality is likely at play. While the officers’ testimony can be interpreted as a changing tide in an opaque culture, it’s likelier that the high-profile nature of the trial is forcing them to cast Chauvin as the bad apple — the one officer who doesn’t represent the broader department and system of policing, the one they need to throw out — as a way to avoid greater examination of police. “They’re throwing Chauvin under the bus because that keeps the bus intact,” Howard University law professor Justin Hansford told Vox. “For each officer who has come forward, this case will determine their legacy.” The “blue wall” isn’t about friendly camaraderie — it’s about covering up misdeeds One of the most respected pillars of policing is loyalty, wrote political science scholar Roberta Ann Johnson in “Whistleblowing and the Police.” “Loyalty is exacted with a code of honor that requires officers not to ‘snitch on,’ ‘rat out’ or turn in other officers. The police officers’ respect for and loyalty toward their peer group encourages them to abide by the code of honor and to heed the obligation of silence,” she wrote. Being silent when a colleague engages in wrongful practices like use of excessive force is a norm in policing, one that has prevented reform. In the wake of the brutal Los Angeles Rodney King beating in 1991 that was caught on camera, for example, the city formed the Christopher Commission to investigate the Los Angeles Police Department, including the department’s training practices and cases involving excessive force. The commission’s critical findings, released in a report, highlighted how the code of silence among officers was “perhaps the greatest single barrier to the effective investigation and adjudication of complaints.” The commission noted the duty of police to be transparent with the public: “Officers are given special powers, unique in our society, to use force, even deadly force, in the furtherance of their duties. Along with that power, however, must come the responsibility of loyalty first to the public the officers serve. That requires that the code of silence not be used as a shield to hide misconduct.” Officers are reluctant to break that code because there are consequences for speaking out. For example, in 2012, Baltimore detective Joe Crystal reported two fellow officers whom he witnessed assault a drug suspect, though his sergeant warned him not to. After Crystal stepped forward, his colleagues taunted and harassed him, ignored his requests for backup, threatened him with perjury prosecution in the criminal case against the officers he reported, and left a dead rat on the windshield of his vehicle. There are many documented cases such as this. So it’s no surprise that it’s rare for officers to testify against a peer. A 2015 Washington Post analysis found that since 2005, 54 police officers nationwide had been criminally charged with murder or manslaughter for shooting and killing someone in the line of duty. The study found that a fellow police officer gave statements or testified against the shooter in just 12 of those cases. And even when officers do testify for the prosecution, it’s not always certain they’ll act with integrity.Officers may engage in “testilying” — a specific term for officers providing false testimony in court.In the 2016 trial of Ray Tensing, the former officer charged with murder and manslaughter for fatally shooting Samuel DuBose during a July 2015 traffic stop, some experts concluded that two officers who testified against Tensing were untruthful on the stand in an effort to abide by the code of silence. In their testimony, the officers maintained that they did not see the fatal encounter, though they were present at the scene. After two mistrials, the prosecutors dismissed the murder indictment against Tensing. That’s why it may feel refreshing that Chauvin’s colleagues are testifying against him, saying he did not follow procedure.“It’s true that we don’t have many examples of police testifying, especially the police chief testifying against one of their own, because there’s the blue wall and police unions that create an atmosphere where you’re not supposed to ever speak out,” Hansford told Vox. “We often think of the blue wall of silence as a sort of solidarity move or a loyalty pact but often it’s really just a CYA move — cover your own ‘tail.’” The collection of officers coming forward to testify has less to do with the egregiousness of Floyd’s killing and more to do with the high-profile nature of the case, Hansford said. “These officers have seen people killed before,” he said. “This is about how big this case is. The Mike Brown case, for example, was big, but it didn’t create this level of response. These officers don’t want to be associated with those pictures of Chauvin on Floyd’s neck.” Christopher Brown, principal attorney at the Brown Firm, which has sued police officers in excessive force cases, agrees. “We’re seeing such a heavy reliance upon other officers in the prosecution because of the infamous nature of the death of George Floyd. When you have international protests over the death of a man in the hands of an officer, we have a unique scenario, unfortunately, where officers really want to distance themselves from that behavior,” he said. “No one wants to go down in history as being associated with or trying to defend or stand up for Chauvin. They’re taking the opportunity to protect their own legacies.” Hansford recognizes the media’s instinct to say this is an unprecedented display of officers turning on their own, yet we will not see the three former officers directly involved with the May 25 killing testify in this trial. Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng, and Thomas K. Lane, who were all fired after Floyd’s death, face their own charges, and have each presented a different version of events in court documents. They are in disagreement over who was in charge of Floyd’s arrest, furthering the idea that each former officer is trying to save himself. “I can’t really say that this is the piercing of the wall until we hear from the people who were right there, until we hear from the people close to Chauvin in the department,” Hansford told Vox. “I don’t know what the officers who were on the scene have to say and the officers who were there in that moment as part of the response.” Chauvin’s exoneration would be disastrous for police departments Hansford and Brown see the officers’ testimony against Chauvin as an effort to cling to the toxic “one bad apple” belief — that it’s not the entire system of policing that’s corrupt but just a few officers who are lone actors. “This is certainly the idea that the Minneapolis Police Department is trying to paint — that ‘this is not what our department does’ and ‘this is not how our department trains its officers,’ ‘this is notbehavior we condone,’” Brown said. And though the officer testimony might seem to be creating an opening for greater accountability when it comes to speaking out against a peer, this might not play out on a broader scale outside of this trial. “Regrettably, I don’t expect to see officers lining up to testify against other officers, but I do expect to see a greater focus on addressing, reevaluating, and updating policies and procedures within departments,” Brown told Vox. And even when the code of silence is challenged, the culture remains. The brutal police killing of Black 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014 and the subsequent years of an alleged cover-up on the part of the Chicago Police Department (a judge found officers not guilty of covering up the shooting) rocked the department’s code of silence by bringing to light the city’s and officers’ coordinated effort to withhold the video that shows officers shot McDonald 16 times. Despite this and other challenges over the years, Chicago’s police department remains plagued by systemic use of excessive force. A 2017 Justice Department investigation found that Chicago had received more than 30,000 complaints of police misconduct from 2011 to 2016, but there was no discipline for police officers in 98 percent of the cases. To Hansford, Chauvin’s acquittal would be damaging for police officers since that would mean more protests and more pressure to change. “It would be cataclysmic. We don’t know if it’ll be another Rodney King situation. And if he’s exonerated, a lot of people will say this is something that’s allowed in the rules. They’re going to have more pressure to change the rules, and police don’t want those rules changed.”
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Amazon is way ahead in the historic warehouse union vote. The battle’s still not over.
A union organizer waves to cars outside an Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, on March 27. | Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images The union says it will likely challenge the results over alleged illegal behavior. The votes haven’t all been counted in the first attempt to unionize a large Amazon facility in the US, but the union involved has already said it will likely challenge the election results. The current count strongly favors Amazon. “Our system is broken, Amazon took full advantage of that, and we will be calling on the labor board to hold Amazon accountable for its illegal and egregious behavior during the campaign,” Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) president Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement to Recode on Thursday evening. RWDSU spokesperson Chelsea Connor said part of the alleged behavior involves Amazon’s placement of a USPS mailbox on the grounds of the Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse at the center of the vote. Some workers have said they were intimidated by the installation of the mailbox, as well as the messages from Amazon to use it, and believe that the company wanted to monitor who voted. The Washington Post reported earlier on Thursday that Amazon officials pressed the USPS to install the mailbox, after the National Labor Relations Board denied the company’s request to place a ballot drop box on the property. Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox previously told the Post that “the RWDSU ... pushed for a mail-only election, which the NLRB’s own data showed would reduce turnout. This mailbox — which only the USPS had access to — was a simple, secure, and completely optional way to make it easy for employees to vote, no more and no less.” With more than 1,500 out of 3,215 votes counted as of Thursday evening, workers voting against unionization outnumbered those who voted for the union, 1,100 to 463. The vote counting will continue on Friday morning, but the writing is clearly on the wall: The union will almost certainly lose the election if current trends hold. Still, that doesn’t mean the fight over unionizing this warehouse is over. While union organizers believe just getting to a vote of this size at Amazon is a victory in its own right — Applebaum, the union president, said as much on Thursday evening, calling the vote “an important moment for working people” — a loss will still undoubtedly sting. The pandemic exposed wealth and race inequalities in the US that labor activists used as catalysts for their drive in Bessemer, where organizers say at least 80 percent of Amazon employees are Black. If there were a perfect storm to take Amazon on and win, this might have been it. The RWDSU had already hinted at the grounds for an appeal to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in recent months, pointing to the mailbox recently installed on the warehouse grounds, as well as Amazon’s message to workers encouraging them to use the mailbox for their ballots. “I can’t imagine a situation where the workers vote against the union and there’s not a challenge based on that mailbox,” Rebecca Givan, a labor professor at Rutgers University who has followed the Bessemer union drive closely, told Recode before the vote counting began. Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images Actor Danny Glover (right) and former Berkeley Mayor Gus Newport (second from right) speak with Amazon union organizers on March 27. If the union formally challenges the outcome — which it told Recode it likely will — and the NLRB rules in favor of the union, the board could call for a revote or could even overturn the result and certify the union. Before the vote, labor experts also expected that Amazon would likely challenge the fairness of the election if it lost. Amazon pushed hard for the election to be conducted in person, rather through mail-in voting, but lost that fight. Lawyers for the company said it wanted as many employees as possible to vote, and argued that NLRB statistics show that mail-in union voting reduces turnout. The company also later lost a request to install cameras in the NLRB room where votes will be tallied, to monitor the ballot boxes during off hours. (Representatives for both Amazon and the union, as well as members of the media, watched the vote counting remotely via Zoom on Thursday.) Pro-union Amazon workers were pushing for a seat at the table with management to get more of a say over the demanding pace of work required by the company, as well as the job security, or lack thereof, that comes with Amazon warehouse employment. These workers have said they face constant tracking and surveillance that can be stressful and dehumanizing, as well as what they believe are insufficient break times for the size of the facility, inconsistent timing of breaks during a given shift, and a termination process that can appear one-sided. While union representatives say union warehouse pay in Alabama averages $18 to $21 an hour compared to an hourly starting wage of $15.30 at Amazon’s Bessemer facility, the topic of pay and benefits isn’t at the top of the list of concerns for many pro-union workers inside Amazon. The company has long said that it didn’t believe the union represented the views of the majority of its workers in Bessemer. But even if the final results show a majority of Amazon workers voted against unionizing, the Bessemer push still might lead to more union pushes elsewhere, whether with the RWDSU or other organizations.
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Derek Chauvin trial: News and updates
Brandon Bell/Getty Images Former police officer Derek Chauvin faces murder charges in the killing of George Floyd. On May 25, 2020, then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pinned George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by the neck with his knee for nine minutes and 29 seconds after responding to a call that Floyd allegedly used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy a pack of cigarettes at a local convenience store. After struggling under Chauvin’s weight (and that of two other officers) and yelling that he couldn’t breathe, Floyd died. Bystanders, who pleaded with the officers to release their restraint of Floyd, recorded the fatal incident on cellphone video that has been viewed across the world, igniting ongoing global protests for police reform and abolition, the protection of Black lives, and the dismantling of racism and white supremacy. Chauvin was fired from the Minneapolis police force after the deadly encounter and faces three charges in a criminal trial that began on March 29: second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. For Chauvin to be convicted of the most serious charge, prosecutors will have to show beyond a reasonable doubt that he caused Floyd’s death when he held his knees to Floyd’s neck and back. The high-profile trial is expected to continue through April 2021, as lawyers for the prosecution and the defense call dozens of witnesses to the stand.
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Biden’s executive actions address a small part of America’s enormous gun problem
Without the help of Congress, President Joe Biden remains unable to push through a ban on assault weapons or any universal background checks. | Stefani Reynolds/CNP/Bloomberg via Getty Images Biden announced six executive actions meant to curb gun violence in America. Amid a recent rash of gun violence, President Joe Biden took executive action on gun reform Thursday, including placing new restrictions on pistol modification and nominating an anti-gun advocate to helm the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). Biden’s actions are significant but address only a very small part of America’s enormous gun problem. Instead, they represent an effort by the White House to use the limited tools the president has, given the difficulties in passing new gun legislation through Congress, to make some progress toward reform. As Vox’s German Lopez has explained, part of the problem is that the US has a lot of guns — more than 120 per 100 people — and those guns are used: The US has about 16 times as many gun homicides per 1 million people as Germany, and it averages one mass shooting (defined as an event in which there are at least four victims, including the shooter) per day. Those mass shootings have been especially prominent of late. Five people were killed in a shooting Wednesday in Rock Hill, South Carolina, while two people were killed and another two injured in Milwaukee. These violent incidents follow dozens of others in the past month, including a mass shooting targeting Asian-owned Atlanta-area spas that killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women. Less than a week later, 10 people were killed in a shooting at a Boulder, Colorado, supermarket. Biden’s executive actions directly address one of those shootings. The Boulder shooter used a pistol modification known as a stabilizing brace, which aids in accuracy and minimizes backward impact. Under the new regulations, pistols with the brace need to be registered with the federal government and will require a more detailed application process. “There’s no reason someone needs a weapon of war with 100 rounds, 100 bullets, that can be fired from that weapon,” Biden said while announcing the executive orders Thursday. “Nobody needs that.” The new orders will not, however, affect the sale of assault weapons like the one used in Atlanta and in the 2019 Dayton shooting. They also will not close loopholes that allow buyers to escape background checks online or at gun shows. That’s notable because a fifth of all guns sold to buyers don’t require a background check, according to the Giffords Law Center, a national advocate for gun control and firearms restrictions. There are currently bills that would close this loophole that have passed the House of Representatives and are waiting for a vote in the Senate. There seems little chance of them passing, given Democrats — who broadly support gun reform — don’t have the numbers necessary to do so. Congress stagnating on gun reform is notable given how popular changing gun policy is with the public: Polling from Giffords and Everytown, another gun control advocacy firm, found that 93 percent of Americans, including 64 percent of Republicans, are in favor of background checks on all gun sales. As the country, largely united in its support for gun legislation, waits for a stagnant Congress to pass meaningful reforms, Biden has now acted unilaterally — his reforms aren’t broad, but they are what is within his power to do. What’s in Biden’s executive actions on gun control The president’s new policies attempt to do two things: limit the availability of certain weapons and encourage states to enact gun control legislation on their own. Here’s what Biden implemented Thursday: Stopping the sale of “ghost guns:” Ghost guns are handmade firearms sold in kits or 3D printed, meaning they don’t come with a serial number and the government has no ability to trace them. Biden wants to curtail their use, mandating serial numbers be stamped on each part and subjecting buyers to background checks. New regulations on pistol-stabilizing braces: Stabilizers can turn pistols into veritable short-barreled rifles, weapons that are more accurate and deadlier than a handgun. Biden wants to treat them as such. Pistols with attached stabilizing braces will now require registration to own, and buyers will need to go through a far more thorough application process. Encouraging “red flag” laws: Biden is asking the Justice Department to draw up model legislation to assist states in implementing so-called red flag laws. These laws would allow the courts to bar people from carrying guns if they are shown by family or law enforcement to present a danger to themselves or others. Federal studies on gun trafficking: For the first time in 20 years, the ATF and the Justice Department will be charged with issuing annual reports on gun trafficking. Investments in community violence intervention programs: Five federal agencies are being directed to send support to these programs. In the infrastructure proposal Biden announced last week, he proposed $5 billion toward community violence intervention efforts, to be paid out in the next eight years. Biden also announced the nomination of David Chipman to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Chipman spent 25 years as an agent at the ATF and currently serves as an adviser at Giffords. The ATF bureau chief will need to be confirmed by the Senate — and it is unclear whether a candidate aligned with a gun reform group like Giffords will be able to get the necessary votes for confirmation. It’s common for ATF director candidates to struggle in the Senate: Its last permanent director was B. Todd Jones, who was confirmed in 2013 and left the post in 2015. Since then, all directors have served in an acting capacity. If broad gun reform is coming, it’ll have to be through Congress A president can only change gun policy so much without the support of Congress, and despite facing pressure to pass new legislation each time there is a mass shooting, lawmakers have failed to enact new law time and again. Recently, the Democrat-controlled House passed two bills aimed at changing that. The first, HR 8, sponsored by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA), would compel unlicensed and private sellers to conduct background checks on all private purchases. As Vox’s Sean Collins has explained: Such a measure would likely have an immediate effect on who is able to buy guns. For instance, Everytown recently did an analysis of gun sales conducted on the online portal Armslist, and found slightly more than 10 percent of people who successfully bought guns on the marketplace would not have passed a background check submitted by a licensed seller. Overall, according to the gun control advocacy group the Giffords Law Center, 22 percent of all guns are sold without background checks. HR 1446, sponsored by Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), would close a loophole that allows prospective gun owners to bypass background checks that take the FBI longer than three days to complete. Instead, the FBI would have 10 days to complete a background check, with the option to trigger an additional 10-day grace period. Both of these bills have stalled in the Senate, standing very little chance of accumulating the 60 votes needed to bypass a GOP-led filibuster. And Democrats, who have 51 votes in the chamber, aren’t unified on what type of gun reform is needed. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has said he would not vote for HR 8 in its current form. “No, I don’t support what the House passed,” Manchin told CNN in March. “Not at all.” Manchin and other relative centrists in Congress, such as Susan Collins (R-ME) and Pat Toomey (R-PA), instead support a more conservative bill Toomey and Manchin authored after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. That bill would increase the use of background checks, though not on private weapon sales. Biden ran for president with an ambitious platform on gun control that included an assault weapons ban and a gun buy-back program. The assault weapons ban in particular looks impossible now, but he promised Thursday he’s not going to stop trying. “Folks, this is just the start,” Biden said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
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