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The DOJ has a plan to protect voting rights. It might not be enough.
Attorney General Merrick Garland delivers remarks on voting rights at the Department of Justice on June 11. | Tom Brenner/Getty Images Merrick Garland’s speech is a cry for congressional action. As Republican-controlled state legislatures around the country clamp down on the right to vote, the Biden Justice Department is preparing to push back — but its efforts, hampered by stalled federal voting rights legislation, may only be able to achieve so much. In a speech on Friday, Attorney General Merrick Garland laid out the DOJ plan to protect voting rights and announced that the department’s Civil Rights Division would begin staffing up to aid enforcement efforts. According to Garland, the voting section of the Civil Rights Division will double its staff of lawyers “within the next thirty days,” and the DOJ will renew its efforts to use existing laws, such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the National Voter Registration Act, and the Help America Vote Act, to “ensure that we protect every qualified American seeking to participate in our democracy.” “There are many things that are open to debate in America,” Garland said Friday. “But the right of all eligible citizens to vote is not one of them. The right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, the right from which all other rights ultimately flow.” Attorney General Merrick Garland: "There are many things that are open to debate in America. But the right of all eligible citizens to vote is not one of them. The right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, the right from which all other rights ultimately flow."— CBS News (@CBSNews) June 11, 2021 To protect that right, though, the department has its work cut out for it: already this year, at least 14 states, including swing states like Arizona, Florida, and Georgia, have imposed new voting restrictions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks voting rights issues. And last weekend, Texas Democrats narrowly (and possibly only temporarily) blocked an additional measure in the Lone Star State, which would have slashed early voting hours and limited mail-in voting in the state, among other changes, by walking out of the Texas Capitol to deny the state House a necessary quorum. Garland said Friday that those new laws would be examined as part of the DOJ’s voting rights push, as would state-level election “audits” like the one currently underway in Arizona. Additionally, the DOJ will take steps to address election disinformation, according to Garland, and it will publish new guidance on early voting, mail-in voting, and the upcoming redistricting process. “Where we see violations, we will not hesitate to act,” Garland said. The DOJ doesn’t have as many tools to protect voting rights as it used to Despite laying out a major effort to combat voter suppression and protect voting rights, however, Garland was also forthright on Friday about the DOJ’s limitations in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down a key portion of the Voting Rights Act. According to the Court’s ruling in Shelby, the preclearance formula used in the act — which defined which states and localities were subject to preclearance, or approval by the federal DOJ before changing their voting laws — was out-of-date and unconstitutional. The result, as Jenée Desmond-Harris explained for Vox in 2016, is that “until Congress passes legislation with a new formula for preclearance under Section 4 — which doesn’t look likely to happen anytime soon — jurisdictions that were covered by the previous formula are free to make election changes without any need to get approval from the federal government.” Prior to Shelby, nine states — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia — were governed by the federal preclearance requirement, as were some areas in California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, and South Dakota. The pre-Shelby coverage formula that imposed preclearance requirements on those states mandated that any state or “political subdivision” within a state that both “maintained a ‘test or device’ restricting the opportunity to register and vote,” and had less than 50 percent of its voting-age population either registered to vote or voting in the 1964 presidential election would be subject to federal preclearance. However, while the formula was updated over the years — for example, the iteration struck down by the Supreme Court relied on voter turnout and voter registration levels from 1972 instead — the Court ruled that: [A] statute’s “current burdens” must be justified by “current needs,” and any “disparate geographic coverage” must be “sufficiently related to the problem that it targets.” The coverage formula met that test in 1965, but no longer does so. Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices. The formula captures States by reference to literacy tests and low voter registration and turnout in the 1960s and early 1970s. … In 1965, the States could be divided into two groups: those with a recent history of voting tests and low voter registration and turnout, and those without those characteristics. Congress based its coverage formula on that distinction. Today the Nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were. But approximately eight years after the Supreme Court’s decision, Congress still hasn’t provided a new formula for preclearance, and doesn’t look likely to do so anytime soon, since a renewal of the Voting Rights Act would require 60 votes in the Senate under current rules and, despite little Republican support for such a bill, Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema continue to take a hard line against abolishing the filibuster. What did happen in the interim, however, was a slew of new voting restrictions in states previously subject to preclearance — restrictions that may not have become law, were preclearance still in place. As P.R. Lockhart reported for Vox in 2019: According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a policy and research group that monitors new voting restrictions, there have been hundreds of “harsh measures making it harder to vote” introduced in state legislatures since 2010. Many of these were introduced after the 2013 Shelby ruling, and, as a federal commission noted last year, have been seen both in states previously subjected to preclearance and states that were not. These restrictions have taken many forms, including strict photo ID requirements, limitations on who can provide assistance at polling places, the curbing of early voting days, and the closing of hundreds of polling places across the US. Other measures, like the purging of voters from state voter rolls and drawing election districts in a way that curbs the power of voters of color, have affected how much power communities of color hold in elections. Similar measures have continued to pile up since then, particularly in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s 2020 election defeat and the widespread GOP adoption of baseless “election fraud” rhetoric. As Garland pointed out on Friday, that’s at least partially because of Shelby, which put an end to preclearance absent further congressional action. So my big takeaway from AG Garland's speech on voting rights is that he might as well have said "I will use every single one of the wholly inadequate tools that I now have to protect democracy, FU SCOTUS."— Ian Millhiser (@imillhiser) June 11, 2021 “Although we will not wait for that legislation to act, we must be clear-eyed,” Garland said Friday. “The Shelby County decision eliminated critical tools for protecting voting rights. And, as the President has said, we need Congress to pass S.1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would provide the department with the tools it needs.” The GOP doesn’t just want to make it harder to vote — they want to make it easier to overturn elections if they lose Though the harm done by Shelby and the effective end of preclearance isn’t new, Garland’s speech Friday highlights why things are looking increasingly grim for voting rights in the US, despite the prospect of more DOJ enforcement of federal voting protections. Specifically, as Vox’s Ian Millhiser explained earlier this month, the current GOP offensive against voting rights, animated by the Big Lie that has increasingly become an article of faith for the Republican Party, is all the more worrying because it is being advanced on multiple fronts, some far harder to overcome than others. In addition to direct efforts to make it harder to vote — early voting restrictions, voter ID laws, and the like, none of which are new to the GOP — multiple Republican-controlled state legislatures have advanced efforts that could make it easier for the GOP to overturn elections on the basis of made-up claims of voter fraud. According to Millhiser, Not every provision of the latest round of voter suppression bills can be overcome either by vigilant voters or by smart campaigns. Georgia’s new law, for example, permits state-level Republican officials to take over local election boards in Democratic strongholds such as Atlanta. That matters because these local boards can potentially close polling places, disqualify voters, or even refuse to certify an election result. Voters who do everything right might nonetheless have their ballots disqualified. What’s more, Georgia isn’t alone in attempting to shift power over elections to Republicans. In Arizona, Republican state legislators are pushing a measure to strip Democratic secretary of state Katie Hobbs of her power to defend election lawsuits. The measure, which was advanced through committee late last month, would instead transfer that power to a Republican — and as the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake points out, appears specifically designed to target Hobbs and would expire when her term does. That particular proposal hasn’t passed yet, and it’s unclear if it will — but Arizona Republicans, who are currently overseeing an “audit” of the the 2020 election results in Maricopa County, have been at the forefront of the GOP war against small-d democracy with measures like the one targeting Hobbs. As political scientist David Faris explained to Vox’s Sean Illing in May, the new GOP strategy hinges on finding “a way to overturn an election with the veneer of legality” — and Faris says 2020 was only a “test run.” “You have to give Trump and Republicans some kind of dark credit for figuring out that this is really conceivable,” Faris told Vox. “I think they now know that, even though it would cause a court battle and possibly a civil war, that if they can’t win by suppressing the vote and the election is close enough, they can do this if they control enough state legislatures and the Congress.” “Sleepwalking toward democratic collapse” As Garland said in his speech Friday, however, there are bills that could potentially stem the tide of GOP-led voter suppression and election subversion measures. Specifically, two Democratic proposals — the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act — would both make strides toward resurrecting and expanding federal voting rights protections. Same. But on this I don't think it's Garland's fault that his office is not the one that is best positioned to defend voting rights. Article II is not where the power is at here.Article I (Congress) and Article III (the Judiciary) are supposed to be doing this work.— Elie Mystal (@ElieNYC) June 11, 2021 The first of the pair, the For the People Act, would represent a sea change in federal voting protections if passed. According to Vox’s Andrew Prokop, the bill “would require automatic voter registration, same-day registration, and at least two weeks of early voting” in all federal elections, and it would “restore voting rights to all felons who have completed their terms of incarceration, allow registered voters lacking IDs to submit a sworn written statement instead, and attempt to limit voter roll purges,” among a slew of other changes. It would also establish nonpartisan redistricting commissions to end partisan gerrymandering, create new anti-corruption measures, and quite a bit more. However, it’s likely dead in the water after Manchin came out against it in an op-ed last week, even setting aside the fact that it lacks Republican support and thus couldn’t clear the 60-vote threshold imposed by the filibuster (which, again, Manchin does support). That leaves the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would give the DOJ back what Garland called its “most effective tool to protect voting rights over the past half-century” — preclearance. AG Merrick Garland wraps up his speech on voting rights by quoting the late John Lewis: "Democracy is not a state. It is an act. And each generation much do its part."— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) June 11, 2021 According to New York magazine’s Ed Kilgore, Manchin has even proposed a version of the bill that would go farther than the formula struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013 and expand preclearance to all 50 states, though it wouldn’t impact voting laws like the one already on the books in Georgia. IMO, Democrats' first priority now should be convincing Manchin that the John Lewis Voting Rights Act should also contain strong non-partisan redistricting rules— Zack Beauchamp (@zackbeauchamp) June 7, 2021 Still, a renewal of the Voting Rights Act, like the For the People Act, would be subject to the filibuster, which doesn’t put it in much better shape as far as prospects in the Senate go. Since Manchin is on the record as supporting it, and it has at least one Republican backer in Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, it’s a slightly cheerier picture — but if Manchin and Sinema don’t budge on the filibuster, and they don’t seem inclined to so far, it won’t matter. As a result, even as the DOJ prepares to step up its voting protection efforts, it’s somewhat unclear what comes next in the struggle over voting rights. As Washington Post columnist and former FiveThirtyEight elections reporter Perry Bacon Jr. wrote last month, “America is still headed in a terrible direction — and at a much faster pace than I expected when Biden took over.” “Moderate Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans either don’t appreciate the direness of the situation or don’t care,” Bacon argues. “I hope I am overly alarmed about all of this. But I don’t think I am. Perhaps democracy dies faster in darkness. But it could also die slowly in the light, as all of us watched but didn’t do enough to save it.”
The fall of “King Bibi”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a special session of the Knesset where Israeli lawmakers elected a new president. | Ronen Zvulun/Pool via AP How Netanyahu’s ouster could change Israel. Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, having held the job continuously since 2009. Now, finally, the reign of “King Bibi” — a moniker earned by his lengthy stay in office and authoritarian inclinations — has come to an end. On Sunday, Netanyahu’s opponents in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, voted to replace him with a “change” coalition: a group of diverse parties from across the Israeli political spectrum united only by their interest in pushing Netanyahu out. The new prime minister is Naftali Bennett, from the far-right Yamina party — though Yair Lapid, from the centrist Yesh Atid party, will have a veto over his decisions. Netanyahu’s downfall is, more than anything else, the result of his own hubris. Over the past 12 years, Netanyahu has dominated Israeli politics. He’s not only successfully implemented a series of right-wing policies, such as entrenching Israel’s presence in the West Bank, but also consolidated a dangerous amount of power in his own hands. He is currently on trial for corruption charges stemming from, among other things, his attempt to buy off media outlets. Israeli politics has divided into pro- and anti-Bibi camps; the split is so narrow that has Israel been forced to hold four elections in two years, with none delivering a decisive verdict. It’s this paralysis, and the looming threat of Netanyahu’s anti-democratic behavior, that brought parties from across the political spectrum together to finally get beyond him. Bennett will serve as prime minister first, for two years, with Lapid taking over from him after that. It’s a power split that partly reflects the internal divisions inside the coalition, which depends on votes from eight different parties on the right, center, and left. One of the eight is Ra’am, an Islamist party and the first Arab party ever to join an Israeli governing coalition. Ronen Zvulun-Pool/AFP via Getty Images Naftali Bennett (center) seen during a special session of the Knesset on June 2. Calling this arrangement unstable is an understatement. The members of this coalition agree on almost nothing and thus will be unable to make major policy changes on most issues without collapsing. This is especially true in the conflict with the Palestinians, where the divides among the coalition parties are arguably most severe. A major event, like another flare-up in Hamas rocket fire, could bring them to each others’ throats — forcing yet another round of elections. But the fact that this new government exists at all speaks to the desire among many Israelis to move on from the Netanyahu era — a desire that led to a seismic change to Israeli politics. “Simply replacing Netanyahu is a huge deal,” said Michael Koplow, the policy director at the US-based Israel Policy Forum think tank. “And including an Arab party in a government is a huge deal, even if the coalition falls apart after six months.” How Netanyahu fell For 10 years, from 2009 to 2019, Netanyahu rode the long-running rightward drift of the Israeli electorate to victory — defeating his opponents on the center and left through a mix of deft political strategy and demagoguery. But things started to fall apart after Israel’s election in April 2019, when the current political crisis began. In that vote, Netanyahu’s Likud and allied right-wing parties won a majority of seats in the Knesset, seemingly setting them up for another extension of his historic premiership. But one party, the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, refused to join the government — citing a disagreement over special exemptions for mandatory military service given to ultra-Orthodox Jews. The inability of Netanyahu or his opponents to form a government in April 2019 led to another election in September of that year, which was supposed to resolve the deadlock. By then, Israeli politics had come to revolve around one big thing: Netanyahu himself and his alleged abuse of power while in office. Bibi had served as prime minister once before, from 1996 to 1999. His defeat convinced him that he needed to make Israeli society more pliant to him personally — specifically, by bending the press to his will: “I need my own media,” as he put it at the time. Netanyahu’s opponents decided enough was enough: two years of chaos and elections needed to come to an end. After his return to the top job, he seems to have tried to turn this proposal into action, allegedly attempting to trade political and regulatory favors for favorable coverage in two other outlets, the leading daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth (Latest News) and the popular online portal Walla! News. He seems to have succeeded with Walla!, allegedly reaching a secret deal to approve a merger that its parent company wanted in exchange for slanting the news in his direction. The head of government attempting to suborn the independent media by handing out favors is not only undemocratic, but also quite possibly illegal. Israel’s attorney general, the conservative Avichai Mandelblit, announced in February 2019 that he would seek to indict the prime minister on a series of corruption and bribery-related charges — including ones that carried up to 10 years of jail time. By the time of the second election in September 2019, Netanyahu’s maneuvering to avoid prosecution had become increasingly dangerous to Israeli democracy. His allies in the Likud had already proposed a law that would grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution while in office, allowing him to get away with what looks like an assault on democratic institutions. The September election was inconclusive: Netanyahu did not have enough support to hold office, but the opposition was too internally divided to form any kind of government. A third election, held in March 2020, had similar results. The outcome was a temporary unity government designed primarily to respond to the coronavirus outbreak while sidelining the issue of Bibi’s prosecution. Netanyahu blew up this fragile agreement in December, gambling that a fourth election would get him enough votes to form a more stable right-wing government. But he failed: That election, held in March, yielded the current Knesset. Amir Levy/Getty Images United Arab List party leader Mansour Abbas speaks to reporters after joining a coalition that forced Israeli Benjamin Netanyahu out of office on June 2. This time around, Netanyahu’s opponents decided enough was enough: Two years of chaos and elections needed to come to an end. Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party won the most votes of any in the anti-Netanyahu camp, made a series of agreements with parties across the political spectrum to form the new coalition. This included not only Netanyahu’s longstanding opponents on the left and center but also right-wing leaders who had previously been either ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet or members of his own party. The thing bringing these factions together is their shared belief that the chaos of the last two years must end. The only way to do that, they reasoned, is to take Netanyahu out of the top job. “Netanyahu will not be able to get a majority [in a fifth election] and then we will go to a sixth election,” Bennett, the leader of Yamina, said during coalition discussions. “The country can’t continue like that.” And now, as a result, Netanyahu has lost the top job — and will be forced to deal with his currently ongoing criminal trial without the power of the premiership. What will the “change coalition” actually change? Now, Bennett will serve as prime minister — a job he’ll keep for two years while Lapid serves as foreign minister. After two years, they will rotate, with Lapid taking the top position and Bennett in the cabinet. During the whole period, both of them will have veto power over policy — so even while Bennett is nominally Lapid’s boss, the latter will be able to block the former’s moves at will. This complex power-sharing agreement is necessary to address the disagreements between these two men in particular and the coalition parties in general. In most of the key policy areas facing Israel, this government will be unable to agree on significant changes. Take what’s arguably the country’s most important issue: the conflict with the Palestinians. On this, Bennett and Lapid have divergent views. Bennett supports annexing much of the West Bank and opposes the creation of a Palestinian state while Lapid supports a two-state solution negotiated with the Palestinian leadership. The broader coalition is similarly divided, containing both hawkish factions like Yisrael Beiteinu and dovish ones like Meretz. Any major actions on the Palestinians, in either an aggressive or conciliatory direction, would divide the change coalition bitterly. The most likely result is that, as long as this government is in power, the conflict will basically remain stuck in its abysmal status quo. “If [the coalition] stays together then it will necessarily mean inertia on the issues that affect Palestinians,” says Khaled Elgindy, director of the program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute. “Occupation, settlements, evictions, demolitions, [and the] Gaza blockade continue as they are.” This is the case on a series of key issues that divide the Israeli left and right, like whether Israel’s courts have gone too far in protecting individual rights. Such controversial topics will, in general, remain untouched by the change coalition — tinkered with at the edges, perhaps, but unaffected in any large way. “The limits on any contentious action are real. In some ways their mandate will be to just govern,” says Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Ronen Zvulun-Pool/AFP via Getty Images Israel’s newest prime minister Naftali Bennett (left) and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid seen speaking during special session of the Knesset on June 2. Nonetheless, there are some exceptions to this rule — areas where the new government could actually make a difference. First, there’s the area that prompted Yisrael Beiteinu to break with Netanyahu all the way back in April 2019: the relationship between synagogue and state. In the past, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties have been willing to throw their lot in with governments on both the left and the right so long as the government preserves their privileged status in Israeli law. But in the current standoff, the ultra-Orthodox parties chose to back Netanyahu — and now, as a result, are locked out of power. The right-wing parties in the current coalition are, by the standards of the Israeli right, relatively secular. Judy Maltz, a reporter at the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, suggests there are still constraints in this area: Both Yamina and Ra’am, the Islamist party, will block some moves toward a more secular society. But at the same time, there are some areas — including reductions in special funding for the ultra-Orthodox, support for public transition on Shabbat, and non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall — where policy change is possible. Second, there might also be some ability to improve the status of Palestinian citizens of Israel (also known as Arab Israelis). The very fact that one of this group’s leaders is in government for the first time — sharing power with right-wing politicians with a history of anti-Arab agitation — is a testament to the rising influence and growing legitimacy that Arab Israelis have in the Jewish-dominated political mainstream. To keep Ra’am happy, the new coalition will need to provide concrete accomplishments that its members can show to its long-marginalized constituents. The party’s leader, Mansour Abbas, has already demanded more funding for infrastructure in Arab communities and an end to building codes that disadvantage Arabs — but there’s much more the coalition could do. One of the top issues for Arab Israelis is a surge in Arab organized crime leading to a murder epidemic; in 2019, 71 percent of Israeli murder victims were Arab, despite Palestinian citizens making up only 21 percent of the Israeli population. The Netanyahu government failed to adequately address this problem with police resources; perhaps, the new one will. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the change government opens up prospects for political change. For 20 years, the political right has dominated Israeli politics. Right-wing dominance empowered Netanyahu to both deepen the occupation of the West Bank and assault democracy inside Israel’s borders — two trends that are closely related. Dethroning Netanyahu won’t put a stop to the occupation, nor will it entirely stop Israel’s slide away from democracy. But by ending Netanyahu’s chokehold on Israeli politics, it will create the possibilities for a move beyond the political status quo. Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli political strategist and fellow at the Century Foundation, puts the point well in a piece for the Guardian: Part of Netanyahu’s staying power has been the snowball effect of consolidating power. Voters cannot imagine anyone else governing, hence the oft-heard refrain “There’s no one else but him”. A new government would demonstrate that there is. If the rotation for prime minister goes as planned, from Bennett to Lapid, citizens will see that there are even two someone elses. That’s healthy for democracy. Of course, it’s also possible that things go the other way. Once Netanyahu is out of the picture, perhaps even in jail, that his Likud party will be free to join with the right-wing members of the coalition and the religious parties in a far-right coalition. But that’s the nature of change: It’s unpredictable. Whether it ends up being for better or for worse in the long run is hard to say, but what’s clear is that some kind of change is finally coming to Israeli politics. “I’m not optimistic about Israel, ever,” says Hadas Aron, a professor at New York University who studies Israeli politics. “But I do think it’s not meaningless that someone else will be in government, that something else could at least have the potential to rise.”
The richest colleges didn’t need to cut their budgets in the pandemic — but they did
A jogger runs at the University of California Riverside campus on April 7, 2021. | Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images As colleges begin to recover from the pandemic, it’s starting to seem like — for the wealthiest of them — austerity measures weren’t worth it. Jesse Hernandez, a senior cook at the University of California Riverside, started hearing rumors that layoffs were coming for the residence hall and dining staff just weeks after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic last March. For a while, it seemed all talk. But sure enough, he and much of the university’s dining staff found themselves out of work for the summer, joining the 650,000 higher education workers nationwide who were laid off due to collegiate austerity programs in the wake of pandemic-induced financial strife. “We got blindsided, honestly,” Hernandez said. Now — with the help of his labor union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees 3299 — Hernandez is trying to make sure mass layoffs never happen again. In his role as a member action team leader, he is organizing workers and meeting with administrators about issues that go beyond what happens on the job site. But while AFSCME 3299 has responded to the pandemic by taking a more expansive view of how to approach collective action, colleges as a whole appear to still be beholden to a financial paradigm that put Hernandez’s job, and thousands of jobs like his, in jeopardy. In part, that may be because the endowment system many schools use to remain solvent brought colleges and universities significant financial rewards amid a rapid rise in stock prices. Those gains followed a major dip in the stock market immediately after the first US Covid-19 outbreaks — and quickly falling prices, in part, led to stark austerity measures. Now, only a year after laying off hundreds of thousands of people, the higher education industry appears to be bouncing back. The education and health services industry saw 87,000 people hired in the month of May, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, and 129,000 people hired in the two months prior. And there are signs of more hiring to come. For example, the University of Michigan just announced it would be ending a year-long hiring freeze at the beginning of the 2022 fiscal year in July. But despite those strong numbers, the number of those hired hasn’t yet equaled the number who lost their jobs. And as thousands of collegiate workers wait to see whether their jobs will return, some have begun to question why austerity measures were put in place at all — particularly given the strong returns many schools saw on endowments and how much of schools’ emergency funds have now been shown to have gone unspent. Endowments meant the richest public and private schools didn’t need austerity as much as they thought It’s important to remember all the uncertainty around the coronavirus when the first outbreaks hit. Social distancing was a new concept to millions of people, the debate about whether to sanitize your groceries raged, and many experts scoffed at the idea that a vaccine would be available before 2022. No one knew when, or if, the pandemic would be over. And the stock market responded by going into freefall. “The stock market was down,” said Seton Hall University professor and higher ed expert Robert Kelchen, and colleges “were unsure about their future.” Unsure how long the pandemic would affect their finances and fearing a prolonged pandemic might mean years — if not decades — of falling enrollment, tuition collection, and damage to endowments, austerity budgeting very quickly became the norm for many schools, both public and private. Many laid off and furloughed faculty and staff, froze hiring for temporary workers, and put off capital projects that weren’t already underway, according to Andrew Comrie, professor at the University of Arizona. Many also turned off the air conditioning in unused buildings and stopped paying for food deliveries and classroom maintenance because so few students were still on campus. State school revenues are at the mercy of state budgets, and by April 2020, states were anticipating budget shortfalls of a combined $500 billion, as budgets were slashed amid concerns about tax collection and lost tourism revenue. For instance, a steep drop in tourism in Hawaii forced Gov. David Ige to request a 15 percent reduction in the general account that funds the campuses in the state’s university system. The university systems of Alaska and Nevada also lost millions. Elite private universities, on the other hand, often have larger budgets, due to the size of their endowments, but those budgets are usually funded by investment income, meaning they grow when the markets are doing well and shrink when they’re in a downturn. At schools like Johns Hopkins, the initial market shock reduced the university’s investment income and concurrent budget by millions of dollars.Such losses, along with an expected decrease in tuition revenues and dorm fees, caused some schools to push the panic button. Broadly speaking, an endowment is a kind of nest-egg investment fund, meant to provide stability, as a “bastion of the institution’s perpetuity,” as Francois Furstenberg, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, told me. At the nation’s largest private schools, these funds can range in value from $7.94 billion at Atlanta’s Emory University to $41.89 billion at Harvard and are used to pay for everything from building projects to endowed scholarships. They have come to be seen as so central to a school’s continued existence that at many of the country’s largest private universities, boards of trustees spend millions of dollars on consulting fees to maximize their returns. Some institutions, like Yale, Stanford, and Princeton, spend more on consulting fees than on financial aid for an entire student body. All this exposure to risk paid dividends for private schools last year, literally, as the stock market began an unexpected rapid rebound, gaining almost 32 percent in just three months. For example, by October 2020, Johns Hopkins reported a budget surplus of $75 million, a $126 million swing from the stark projections that led to austerity measures just months prior. Northwestern University announced an $83.4 million surplus for the fiscal year in January. Yale University reported an even more astounding $203 million surplus in November 2020. “They obviously prepared for the worst back in the middle of last year,” Comrie said. “But once the market rebounded in the fall, it’s a whole lot tougher to defend that level of austerity when literally two months before, it wasn’t there.” Elite private schools did fine, and so did the public schools with large endowments. As Lee Gardner, a senior writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education, told me, “Any school where you’ve got [billions] in the endowment qualifies.” Across the United States and Canada, that means more than 100 institutions managed the coronavirus-induced economic crisis in part by way of their endowments, from the University of Chicago to Virginia Commonwealth University. But much of these gains was of little immediate help to schools navigating the other effects of the pandemic, or to those faculty and staff wondering about the fates of their jobs. “In many cases, the endowment is restricted for particular purposes,” Kelchen said. “Seventy-five percent of the endowment may be restricted for using on student financial aid or paying for buildings or endowed faculty positions. The amount that’s unrestricted can be fairly small.” Increased investment income could mean more spending on those restricted areas — scholarships, salaries, dining, and so on — in the years to come, but could not be moved to protect jobs. That’s because while colleges do turn the endowment into revenue every year — by taking tiny percentages of the interest, never the principal, to put into operating funds. They don’t like going over allotted percentage caps. “It is generally considered a bad idea to do anything more than that,” Gardner, the Chronicle of Higher Education writer, said. “Because what you are doing is you are eating into the college’s future. I understand that you don’t want to hear that when people are losing jobs. But that is the charge you are given as a university administrator: Protect the institution, protect the next few years.” Austerity measures weren’t worth it But some labor unions, educators, and college experts are now arguing that — at least for the largest public and private collegiate institutions — emergency budget cuts weren’t worth it, given that many had prepared emergency funds for crises like a pandemic. These massive funding pools, sometimes called “rainy day funds” by collegiate officials and activists, often come from endowments, and can be found in the UC system that employed Hernandez and at many other institutions. The University of Massachusetts network boasts an emergency stabilization fund of around $125 million. Board of Trustees member Michael V. O’Brien once joked that the money would only ever be spent in the event of “a completely unforeseen cataclysm,” an “asteroid strike,” for example. Rutgers University, where media studies professor Todd Wolfson teaches, has a similar fund. Wolfson said he learned about the rainy day fund from the University’s chief financial officer. “I was like, well, this is the largest health crisis in the history of this country,” Wolfson said. “Do you not consider this a moment to use your frickin’ rainy day fund? And they said, ‘We’re thinking about it.’ But they ultimately never ever did.” Wolfson said schools shied away from pulling excess dollars from rainy day funds and endowments because of broad concerns that had little to do with their missions as educational institutions — including how such a move would look to creditors. “To them, their rating from Moody’s” factored into schools’ reticence, Wolfson said. “And their ability to take out a loan in the future and not have slightly worse terms, and the desire to grow and grow and grow[the total value of their endowment]and get bigger and bigger, it feeds a logic in it of itself. Growing an endowment for the sake of growing an endowment.” In general, schools offered little rationale for refusing to use their emergency funds, and their statements around layoffs tended to be vague. For example, in a precursor to announcing their own spate of layoffs, Northwestern’s president saidreducing jobs was necessary because thepandemic had placed “extreme pressure on all our major functions and on associated revenue streams.” When asked about their financial strategies during the pandemic, many of the country’s wealthy private schools — including Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, and Yale — did not provide comment. Liz Perlman — the executive director of AFSCME 3299, the University of California labor union representing 28,000 service workers — told me that austerity in the face of such funds is “lazy policymaking.” Perlman said AFSCME 3299 identified several alternatives to austerity that could have kept UC’s employees at their jobs, including drawing on some of the $14.8 billion the system possesses that is categorized as short-term or long-term investment funding, meaning it can be spent as the system sees fit. Instead, the university system, California’s third-largest employer, almost laid off 3,000 AFSCME 3299 workers in 2020; the number laid off was actually closer to 200, a reduction the union believes was due to its activism. It wasn’t just the existence of rainy day funds or the rapid market turnaround that makes austerity questionable, however. There is also the fact that, particularly at the largest schools, advocates like workers unions began to develop new, more equitable alternatives to traditional austerity measures. The pandemic revealed alternatives to traditional austerity. Schools aren’t sure they’ll need them. Todd Wolfson, the Rutgers media studies professor and president of the university’s largest educators’ union, believes that there are alternatives to austerity that can still yield savings in a crisis, and that can be useful in situations with rapidly changing conditions, like the pandemic. His union, for instance, presented Rutgers with a plan in which every unionized worker agreed to voluntary furloughs in exchange for no layoffs; Wolfson said it would have saved the university upward of $150 million. “There’s a way to do this that’s collaborative, that really lifts up the university as a moral beacon for how to handle a crisis,” Wolfson said. “As opposed to a neoliberal-driven institution that punishes whomever it has to punish in thinking about its bottom line. To this day, it’s a mystery to me why they said no.” The university ultimately went with its own plan, laying off 1,000 workers, disproportionately women and people of color; 400 adjunct professors were told they wouldn’t be returning the following year, saving Rutgers $4.5 million, which is roughly the yearly salary of head football coach Greg Schiano. But the school’s strategy shifted with the arrival of a new president, Jonathan Holloway, in July. At a virtual summit in October, Holloway said that Rutgers would need to continue to find savings, given that, despite its endowment, Rutgers was not among the schools that profited during the pandemic — though its losses were revised down from an estimated $200 million to a much more manageable $54 million. “We have a very large workforce, but when we don’t have jobs for them because our students aren’t here, like, ‘What do we do?’” Holloway said at the virtual summit. “We’ve worked very hard to find as many other kinds of jobs that they’ll be trained into, but at some point all that stops. And this has been the real frustration of the pandemic. You can try and try and try and all of a sudden, the math doesn’t work anymore and you have to make these really difficult decisions.” In February 2021, Holloway and Wolfson’s union came together on a smaller work-sharing agreement that will keep the university from enacting further layoffs through the end of the Covid-19 crisis. “I reached out to President Holloway, I said, ‘Hey, this is a moment. Let’s try to figure out if we can bargain a deal ... we’re not gonna be able to get everything back but at least get on a better footing and try to figure out what’s next,’” Wolfson said. The union at Rutgers wasn’t alone in finding creative solutions to keep workers employed; the University of California system agreed to a deal with AFSCME Local 2399 whereby workers at several universities could voluntarily transfer to UC hospitals so they could keep jobs within the university system. Some workers made the move, guaranteeing a job for themselves. AFSCME said it fought hard to give them that option, and that the deal kept thousands more workers from being laid off. Perlman, the AFSCME executive director, helped negotiate the agreement. But she said that while it helped, it wasn’t good enough, that a university system with $40 billion in funding shouldn’t be laying off the poorest members of its community. “If you live in a bubble and you actually count beans and nuts, then that makes sense,” Perlman said. “But if you actually look at the real world, those humans are actual Black and brown low-wage service workers who were also the same humans and their family members who were showing up at UC hospitals with Covid and then dying from it.” And Perlman noted that the first person who died of Covid-19 in California was an AFSCME union member, a truck driver at UC Santa Cruz. While the pandemic has led to some changes — including more union activity — overall, little has changed with respect to schools’ financial underpinnings. For instance, Inside Higher Ed’s 2021 survey of university presidents found only 17 percent saying they would make larger than planned draws from the endowment to increase revenue in future economic crises. That response may come from the fact that so many schools are entering this phase of the pandemic in strong shape. The same poll found 80 percent of presidents are confident their institution will be financially stable over the next 10 years, an increase from the 57 percent that agreed before the pandemic hit in 2020. “The sky did not fall,” Gardner said. “I hope that does not imbue false confidence for the people who run these institutions that they shouldn’t be as prepared as they possibly can be or be as cautious as they can be in the event that something like this comes up again.” Hernandez feels the same way. Just weeks ago, he and the staff at Riverside got word that they’d be laid off again this summer. He’d never experienced that insecurity before last summer. Now, it’s a running theme. “We’re cooks, we’re storekeepers, people who feed the students in our department,” Hernandez said. “And we’re trying to figure out, why is it that we suffer?” Gregory Svirnovskiy is a student at Northwestern University and a politics and policy intern at Vox through the university’s journalism residency program.
Biden plans to reverse Trump’s Alaska policy. Here’s why it matters.
A view of Mendenhall Glacier and Nugget Falls, in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. | Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket/Getty Images Tongass National Forest is a frequent target for political ping-pong between environmental and development interests. On Friday the Biden administration revealed plans to reinstate environmental protections preventing logging and mining in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, which the Trump administration had discarded. The 17 million acres in southeastern Alaska — the largest national forest in the US — have been a political battleground for over two decades, bouncing back and forth between the interests of logging industries and climate activists. In 2001, President Bill Clinton finalized the “roadless rule,” which prohibited road construction on 60 million acres of forested land across the US and heavily restricted commercial logging and mining. But in October of 2020, then-President Donald Trump reversed these protections when he made the Tongass Forest exempt from the rule, doing what many developers and politicians in Alaska had been calling for since the Clinton era. But this reversal didn’t last for long. The Biden administration vowed to undo damaging policies Since his time on the campaign trail, President Joe Biden has been vocal about climate action, specifically in contrast with the policies that the Trump administration had passed. After the US, under Trump, left the Paris climate agreement and engineered the largest reduction of protected lands in US history, Biden entered office ready to undo the damage. On the same day Biden was sworn in, on January 20, 2021, he signed an executive order titled “Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis,” which includes goals to reduce climate pollution, and to review and revoke action items set forth by the previous administration. One of the most notable was the revocation of the March 2019 permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline. The project, begun in 2008 and only officially called off this month, has faced backlash at every stage of its development. Canceled by the Obama administration in 2015, and then renewed in 2017 when Trump invited TC Energy, the pipeline’s Canadian developer, to reapply for a permit, the Keystone XL is a perfect example of the back-and-forththat climate politics can have depending on who is in office. The Tongass National Forest is yet another example. From a developer’s perspective, Alaska’s natural resources make it a gold mine. Its old growth forests make it ideal for harvesting timber, its coastal plains are plentiful in prospective drilling sites for oil and natural gas, and developing these opportunities could boost the state’s economy. No specifics as to how the “roadless rule” reversal will be carried out have been announced, apart from the intent to “repeal or replace” it, but Alaskan officials are aware of the economic loss, and have been vocal about the change. “The Biden administration’s announcement is an unacceptable whipsaw in federal policy just months after an exhaustively-reviewed final rule was issued by the Trump administration that struck the right balance between conserving the lands we cherish and fostering opportunities for hard-working Alaskans,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) said in a joint statement which also included comments from fellow Alaska Republicans Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young. Disappointed in the @POTUS latest suppression of AK economic opportunity. From tourism to timber, Alaska’s great Tongass National Forest holds much opportunity for Alaskans but the federal government wishes to see Alaskans suffer at the lack of jobs and prosperity. #akgov #alaska— Governor Mike Dunleavy (@GovDunleavy) June 11, 2021 Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican,alsoexpressed his disapproval of the Biden action on Twitter andlater added, “We will use every tool available to push back on the latest imposition.” Biden is currently attending the annual G7 summit, which is meeting this year in Cornwall, England. World leaders are expected to address environmental policy on Sunday. Effects of logging could be dramatic to the “lungs” of North America While politicians paint a picture of an oppressive federal government that would deny normal Alaskans access to “jobs and prosperity,” the narrative rings a bit hollow when set against actual feedback from the public.In 2019, the US Forest Service released a summary of over 140,000 comments on the “roadless rule” from the public which overwhelmingly supported the restrictions on forest development. In fact, one of the main points of rationale as to why the public thinks the “roadless rule” should remain was that it is vital to the tourism and fishing industries. According to research by an economic development organization called the Southeast Conference, in 2019 Alaska’s timber industry (along with warehousing, utilities, and transport) only provided 4 percent of Alaskans with jobs in contrast to the 18 percent that were employed by tourism. Commercial fishing, tourism, and recreation are the fastest growing job sectors in southeast Alaska, according to the research. The Southeast Conference has not issued an official statement, but its executive director, Robert Venables, joined Gov. Dunleavy’s statement, in which he accused multiple administrations of “playing ping-pong” with Alaskans and the resources of the state. In addition to providing jobs, as the United States’ largest national forest, the Tongass plays a significant ecological role in absorbing carbon produced in the US. According to National Geographic, the temperate rainforest absorbs approximately 8 percent of the pollution produced in the US. “While tropical rainforests are the lungs of the planet, the Tongass is the lungs of North America,” Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist with the Earth Island Institute’s Wild Heritage project, told the Washington Post. In fact, the United States Geological Survey recently estimated that if no trees were lost through logging and the land were left unmanaged in the Tongass, its carbon storage could increase by up to 27 percent by the end of the century. Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket/Getty Images Brown bears fishing for salmon on Baranof Island in the Tongass National Forest. The Tongass is also home to a thriving wildlife population, but Trump’s reversal of the “roadless rule” put this in danger. On land, the state of Alaska is home to 95 percent of America’s brown bear population, and the Tongass specifically contains the highest concentration of brown bears on the planet, while the forest’s 17,000 miles of clean freshwater provide optimal spawning conditions for wild salmon. Due to its high populations, the Tongass is sometimes called a “salmon forest” and, as it produces $60 million of wild salmon annually, this name is not far-fetched. But, if not for the “roadless rule,” this might have changed. Logging around a stream causes runoff like silt or dirt into the water, which can smother developing eggs, while dams, often used to maneuver logs down waterways, disorient the fish and disrupt their natural migratory patterns. Damage to the Tongass goes beyond statistics for Alaska Natives While this is a loss that can affect any Alaskan, to AlaskanNatives, losing wild salmon and the forests that house them means much more than a declining food source. Twenty-three percent of the region’s population comes from the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian tribes, who have been fighting for recognition and for better treatment of their ancestral land which includes the expansive Tongass Forest. While logging industries threaten food sources, cultural resources like Western red and Alaskan yellow cedar trees, which many communities use to make traditional regalia, baskets, and totem poles, are also threatened. “Cedar is the warp in the basket of who we are as a people. We weave our way around the cedar, keeping ourselves connected, strong and able to carry the tools and resources forward for the next generation,” Marina Anderson, a Haida and Tlingit woman who serves as the tribal administrator of the Organized Village of Kasaan, said in an article for Juneau Empire. Anderson recently helped to organize a workshop on cultural uses of forest resources, taught by Native Alaskans, for employees of the United States Forest Service (USFS). For years, the USFS has provided manufacturers with commercial timber from the Tongass without communication with Native populations. The workshop aimed to teach USFS workers how to distinguish different types of trees that can be used to make canoes and totem poles, or trees that are rare and should be protected. While this type of cross-cultural exchange does not target the heavy hitters of industry or politics, it does make an impact on the people carrying out the work.
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Colombia’s protests are a product of its post-peace-deal reality
Demonstrators in Cali, Colombia, shout anti-government slogans as they continue a blockade at the Sameco sector during a protest amid a national strike on May 19, 2021. | Gabriel Aponte/Getty Images “The peace process has opened up a space for other concerns and for other political debates.” In Cali, a city in southwestern Colombia,protestersput up barricades across the city.A front line — la primera línea — sometimes guards these barricades with masks and helmets and shields. Cali is the epicenter of the unrest that has convulsed Colombia for more than a month. A tax reform bill proposed by right-wing President Ivan Duque sparked protests in late April, with thousands responding to a call from national labor unions to push against the measure. The government defended the proposed tax increase as a much-needed measure to repair the economy after fallout from the coronavirus. Those who opposed the legislation saw it as putting another burden on middle-class and poorer families who are already in a precarious position, also because of the coronavirus. Anger over the tax bill also became an outlet for pent-up grievances against Colombia’s economic structures and its political elite. “It only takes a spark where there’s a lot of discontent,” Muni Jensen, senior adviser with the Albright Stonebridge Group and a former Colombian diplomat, said. Demonstrators, many of them young or from marginalized communities, are speaking out about structural inequality, poverty, land reform, health care, and lack of education and opportunity. Many of these pressures have existed in Colombia for years, but they deepened dramatically during the pandemic. The people flooding the streets across Colombia have faced brutal crackdowns from police, fueling demonstrators’ rage and adding police brutality to their list of grievances. Human rights groups have alleged abuses such as indiscriminate beatings, killings, and sexual violence. Temblores, an organization that tracks police brutality in the country, has documented more than 3,700 cases of police violence as of May 31, 2021, as well as 45 deaths it said were caused by police. Colombia’s human rights ombudsman said at least 58 people have died during the protests so far. “That just enraged people who are already enraged because of the situation, because of the government,” Laura Gamboa, assistant professor of political science at the University of Utah, said of the police crackdown. “What you see here is like this ball that is just going to grow and grow.” Experts say there’s another, deeper dynamic also fueling the protests. Columbia recently emerged from decades of internal armed conflict, the culmination of an imperfect and still not fully realized peace process. But this helped excise the civil war as the dominant political issue. Instead, it created “the possibility new issues that had been long left aside, become central again,” Juan Albarracín Dierolf, assistant professor of political studies at the Universidad Icesi in Cali, Colombia, told me. Demonstrations also carried a stigma during the conflict, as political protests were often grouped together with armed resistance. That has dissipated in the aftermath of the peace deal, though it has not eliminated the heavy-handed response from police, a force shaped to counter guerrillas, not peaceful protesters. Colombia’s protests, then, are as much about its past as they are about its present. As Albarracín said, it is all “happening really, really quickly.” Together, that is making Colombia’s future very uncertain. Colombia’s peace process gave the space for these protests to happen In 2012, then-Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos began negotiations with the leftist guerrillas known as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), or FARC, in an attempt to end a civil war that had gone on for more than 50 years. After four years of negotiations, the Colombian government and the FARC signed a peace deal under which the FARC demobilized and became a legitimate political party. The peace process was far from perfect. The agreement faced public opposition, though it was finally approved in November 2016. The country’s current president, Ivan Duque, ran (and won) on a platform of trying to weaken the deal, which he saw as going too easy on the guerrillas. Duque’s been trying to jam up the implementation of the deal ever since. The peace deal did not solve all of Colombia’s problems, nor did it fully end the violence. But the civil war between the government and the FARC was Colombia’s central crisis. With the peace deal, that main cleavage consuming Colombia started to fade away, said Gamboa. But all the other major problems stuck on the sidelines, especially socioeconomic issues, started to bubble up. Inequality, education, employment, social justice, racial inequities — all of it became much more salient. “The peace process has opened up a space for other concerns and for other political debates,” said Sandra Botero, assistant professor of international studies and political science at Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá. Colombia is the second most unequal country in an already unequal Latin America region. Even as its economy has grown in recent decades, the poorest slice of the population is not seeing those benefits, and many lower- and middle-income earners struggle to pay for basic services. The Covid-19 pandemic and associated shutdowns exacerbated this divide, shrinking Colombia’s economy by almost 7 percent and increasing the poverty rate to more than 42 percent. The country adopted very strict lockdown measures to try to curb the coronavirus, which tested its social safety net. It also really squeezed the country’s most vulnerable: As of 2019, more than 60 percent of Colombia’s workers were part of the informal economy. With everyone locked down, those people, such as street vendors, couldn’t make money. All of this was brewing underneath the surface of Colombian society — and when Duque introduced the tax bill, he unleashed these dormant frustrations. Colombia also saw street protests in 2018 and 2019, and in some ways, this latest round of unrest is a continuation of those. But these kinds of mass protests are a relatively recent political expression in Colombia. In the past, mass mobilization or resistance in the streets was framed by the same paradigm of war. “Before the peace agreement, any kind of dissatisfaction of the people was framed as mobilization made by the guerrillas,” Carlos Enrique Moreno León, professor of political science at the Universidad Icesi, said. The peace deal, then, not only made room for people to push on other issues but also destigmatized demonstrations and, in doing so, reanimated one of the most potent tools regular people had to advocate for political change. “In Colombia, civil protests were always repressed brutally because it was filed with the guerrillas and with this insurgency,” said Elvira Restrepo Saenz, associate professor of international studies at The George Washington University. “This is a post-conflict protest, and it’s unprecedented in its magnitude, in its intensity, and in its territorial comprehensiveness.” The heavy-handed police response is a legacy of the civil war The same peace process allowing the protests to flourish is also showing its limitations when it comes to the response from police and the government. The Colombian National Police is very much linked to the military; though a distinctive branch, it falls under the oversight of the Ministry of Defense. The force itself was very much shaped by the conflict in Colombia, with officers often fighting “on the front lines, wielding tanks and helicopters as they battled guerrilla fighters and destroyed drug labs,” according to the New York Times. Critics have said the country’s national police needs to reform, moving from a focus on training for battle to one of public safety. “On balance, there’s been a real struggle to democratize policing, in part because the institutions themselves — the police and the military — benefit politically and economically from this kind of ‘us-versus-them, we’re still at war’ mentality,” Eduardo Moncada, assistant professor of political science at Barnard College, said. That has been on display during the most recent demonstrations. Even if the act of protest itself has become normalized in society more broadly, the police themselves still largely see the demonstrators as “internal enemies.” “They are treating the protesters as they used to treat the guerrillas, as subversives, because that’s the type of public force that is the police,” Restrepo said. “The military and security forces that we have, that was never reformed.” Another (almost obvious) difference is that the police can’t operate in the shadows in the same way they might have at the height of the conflict in Colombia. Now there are people with cell phones everywhere, taking videos and documenting the brutality. All of this has escalated tensions and led to clashes with police, including the burning of a police station in Cali and attacks against officers, at least two of whom died. Initially, Duque took a line that may sound familiar, saying he had “respect for peaceful protest” and that while incidents of police abuse are intolerable, they were isolated rather than evidence of a systemic problem. (He has since promised some reforms.) The government has also alleged that some of the violence and chaos is the work of guerrillas, including the vestiges of the FARC, as well as drug traffickers who have infiltrated the protests. At the end of May, when protests had stretched on for a full month, Duque deployed the military to Cali, saying the increased capacity would help in the areas that have seen “acts of vandalism, violence and low-intensity urban terrorism.” Officials have also said hundreds of police officers have been injured, including by armed civilians. Restrepo said the government is trying to bring the FARC guerrillas and Colombia’s conflict back to the center of the agenda “to justify the militarization of the police and the techniques that they’re using, the violence [and] brutality that they’re using.” In other words, when it works politically, go back to the us-versus-them paradigm. This has further enraged protesters who see their legitimate grievances being ignored and their anger recast. But at the same time, there are credible reports of street gangs and other criminal elements blending into the protests, trying to sow and take advantage of the chaos for their own gain. Colombia, despite the peace deal, is still dealing with a very precarious security situation. Instead of an armed conflict, a slew of non-state actors and paramilitaries are engaging in violence of a particular form, including selective and extrajudicial killings, particularly against human rights advocates, community organizers, and civil society leaders. Experts told me it would be a mistake to say all protesters, or even all blockades in cities like Cali, are associated with criminal elements. “That being said, you’re having this context of social protests embedded in a city, in a country where, of course, there are some powerful criminal organizations and guerrilla groups,” the Universidad Icesi’s Albarracín said. At least some of those groups will take advantage of the disorder — and the front lines are already so chaotic and disorganized, it’s hard to know who’s who. None of this, of course, negates the very real and well-documented allegations of misconduct against Colombia’s police force. But it is a reminder of just how complex the situation on the ground in Colombia really is. The protests are diverse in geography and in demands, and that makes for a messy and volatile combination Beyond the question of whether “terrorists” are mixing with peaceful protesters, figuring out who the peaceful protesters are and what they want is its own challenge. Protests are happening across Colombia, in cities including Cali, Bogotá, and Medellin. But this is not a fully unified movement. Up close, the protests all look very different, with diverse and often localized grievances — and not all of the demands are aligned. Just looking at Cali, which has become the symbol of the protests in Colombia, reveals just how complicated the movement is. Many of the people on the front lines are young, including students who feel disillusioned with their education and employment opportunities. At different times, Indigenous groups, farmers, Afro-Colombian groups, labor unions, and other workers have all joined the protests. “They are not organized by a mastermind or even by a collective,” Botero said. “Many of them are organic, and to a certain extent, spontaneous.” Instead, there are many, many individuals or groups with many, many demands, and not all of them are in agreement with each other. At the Puerto Resistencia — the biggest barricade in Cali — about 21 separate groups occupy just one point, Moreno said. And those groups have no affiliation with the handful of others posted up at another blockade across the city. And, of course, the specific demands in a place like Cali will be different than those in, say, Bogotá. Without obvious leaders, or a confederation of them, negotiations are extraordinarily difficult. The Duque government had been negotiating with the organizers from the Comité Nacional de Paro, or National Strike Committee, who originally called for the national strike in response to the proposed tax bill. But the National Strike Committee walked away from talks this week. The protests have become much bigger, though, and the committee is largely disconnected from the action on the ground. “Certainly, those are part of the groups that are being mobilized,” Botero said. “But the strike committee does not control the blockages that are happening in Cali.” On the local level, city or municipal governments are also trying to quell the unrest and negotiate with protesters. Local officials, for example, have to deliver services behind the blockades. But they, too, are struggling to make inroads amid the demonstrations. Experts said that even if protesters do sit down withlocal officials and come to an agreement, it tends to fall apart quickly. For one, who comes to the table to represent the protesters? Plus, the local government has limited resources and power; it can’t necessarily follow through on whatever promises it makes, and right now, it doesn’t have the backing of the national government. And even if a bunch of groups and the local government agree somehow, others affiliated with the protests may be left out or feel like their demands weren’t fully heard, so why would they agree to any bargain and get off the streets? It is, as Albarracín put it, “tiers of confusion.” Where do the protests go from here? Colombia’s protests, in some ways, fit into the larger global movement against police brutality and injustice that has arisen over the last year in countries from the United States to Nigeria. In other ways, they are specific to Colombia’s current status as a country still trying to overcome a decades-long conflict, with a population trying to push a more democratic and equal vision. “The protests have put on the table a requestioning of power in Colombia,” the University of Utah’s Gamboa said. Right now, that requestioning comes without clear resolution. Duque rescinded the tax reform bill on May 2, days after the protests started, but it didn’t stop the demonstrations, nor did the finance minister’s resignation. Duque just made some concessions on police reform in the wake of public and international pressure. The reforms include establishing, with international guidance, a committee on human rights, in addition to new officer trainings. Also, representatives from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights are currently visiting Colombia to investigate police abuses. Still, critics say these reforms are superficial and won’t go far in addressing the systemic problems in the force. They are calling for such actions as moving the national police force out from the auspices of the Ministry of Defense and disbanding the riot police. There’s another challenge blocking any sort of real breakthrough: the electoral calendar. Scheduled for May 2022, Colombia’s presidential election is less than a year away. Duque is a lame duck and cannot run again (Colombia’s presidents are limited to one four-year term). Whoever wins, Botero said, will inherit a “powder keg” — but right now, politicians on both the left and the right are carefully positioning themselves as they try to use the fallout from the protests to advance their own agendas. This kind of volatile politics tends to benefit the more extreme candidates on either side, which may make it harder to find a leader who will address the very real need for change and reform in Colombia. That is a threat to Colombia’s democracy, and to the peace it is still trying to build.
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The star-crossed history of In the Heights and West Side Story
Daphne Rubin-Vega as Daniela, Stephanie  Beatriz as Carla, and Dascha Polanco as Cuca in Warner Bros. Pictures’ In the Heights. | Macall Polay for Warner Bros. New film adaptations of the two hit musicals from very different eras are 2021’s fascinating cinematic call-and-response. When In the Heights premiered on Broadway in 2008, it was a minor revelation. Through its exuberant, multicultural tale of community and economic struggle in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, seemed to be trumpeting his arrival onto the Broadway scene — and the entrance of his first show into the musical theater canon. Miranda declared In the Heights’ cultural significance from its very first notes: In the show’s opening number, in which Miranda’s semi-autobiographical character Usnavi introduces himself and his neighborhood to the audience, the first thing we hear is a rhythmic motif borrowed from another musical altogether. It’s the same opening riff as that of “America” from West Side Story — Broadway’s other iconic tale about Latin American immigrants and migrants living in upper Manhattan. Those borrowed five notes were more than a homage to Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 masterpiece, widely acknowledged as one of the greatest musicals ever written. They draw a direct link between the two musicals, announcing In the Heights as West Side Story’s spiritual successor. They also deliberately set up a call-and-response between the two musicals. The song “America,” specifically, is about the type of American immigrant and migrant experience that Usnavi still struggles with half a century after West Side Story: The conflict over whether to return to his Caribbean roots or settle down and fully embrace his life and his identity as a New Yorker. In 2021, that call-and-response has been inverted in a fascinating way. This year, audiences will be treated to lavish film adaptations of both musicals, with the highly anticipated In the Heights arriving first. The film debuted in theaters and on HBO Max on June 11, directed by Crazy Rich Asians’ Jon Chu, sporting a screenplay by Angels in America’s Tony Kushner, and starring Miranda’s Hamilton protégé Anthony Ramos as Usnavi, it has already drawn raves from critics and fans, and it stands poised to be the hit of a parched post-pandemic summer. Months later, in December, arrives Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake. From all appearances, the new film is a painstakingly crafted re-conceptualization of director/choreographer Jerome Robbins’s original iconic staging of the 1957 musical, with many visual homages to Robert Wise’s 1961 film adaptation. It’s still a ways off, but anticipation is already bubbling — and inevitably, the year’s two Latin American movie musicals are already being paired and pitted against one another, Thunderdome-style. But is that comparison fair to either musical? Will In the Heights eventually be overshadowed by the much larger cultural legacy of West Side Story and Spielberg’s prestige as a director? Will West Side Story’s outdated storytelling undermine its ability to speak to audiences in the 21st century? Are the two musicals even that similar? In a word, yes. Both stories deal with an inherent identity conflict that continues to resonate within America’s diverse urban communities. Not only that, but West Side Story’s ongoing legacy is one that Miranda himself is directly tied to. Far from canceling each other out, understanding how the musicals are linked can deepen our appreciation of each one. West Side Story is beloved — but it has an inherent authenticity problem West Side Story is a modernization of Romeo and Juliet that depicts Shakespeare’s rival clans as warring New York street gangs. Staged by a team of Broadway legends, the show was hailed as groundbreaking and “radioactive” — in a good way — upon its premiere. Today, it’s beloved largely for two things. The first is its magnificent Bernstein-Sondheim score, almost every song of which is a well-known hit, from ballads like “Somewhere” and “Maria” to upbeat bops like “I Feel Pretty,” “Cool,” and “Gee, Officer Krupke!” Really, every song in West Side Story is a banger, showcasing Bernstein’s ability to create jazz that sounds like New York — and you’ve probably heard them all at least once. The second is Jerome Robbins’s staging and choreography. Equally important to the show’s legacy, it’s a fierce combination of contemporary jazz and ballet. Not only did Robbins’s dance moves drive the story’s characterization and plot, but they produced movements so successful, so well known, and so indelibly associated with West Side Story that the show is almost never performed without the original choreography. Reviewing the 2020 Broadway production (now set to reopen later this year), which did dare to remove and replace Robbins’s work, the New York Times’ Gia Kourlas scolded, “What Robbins created wasn’t just a series of dances, however peerless, but an overarching view of how, beyond anything else, movement could tell a story.” No matter how sacrosanct Robbins’s choreography is, however, the impulse to replace or revamp it has grown over time, as part of an ongoing cultural push to reconfigure West Side Story altogether. That’s because while West Side Story is brilliant, it is decidedly not a realistic representation of street gangs or migrant communities. Though the show provides a reliably thrilling stage experience, its storytelling has always been the weakest spot in its otherwise impenetrable creative armor. And, increasingly, audiences and critics have regarded its narrative weaknesses as a byproduct of its real problem: a lack of cultural authenticity. The men who created West Side Story, a true mid-century Broadway dream team, did have strong ties to immigrant culture. In addition to Robbins and Bernstein, veteran screenwriter Arthur Laurents (Hitchcock’s Rope) wrote the book (the stage script), and a 27-year-old Stephen Sondheim made his Broadway debut as the show’s lyricist. All four men were the sons of Jewish families; three of them were lifelong New Yorkers. Robbins, who came up with the idea for the show, initially had in mind a story based on Irish and Jewish families on the Lower East Side — which Laurents then drafted as East Side Story in 1949, before he and Robbins decided it was too generic. In 1955, however, a random Los Angeles Times article sent the nascent show’s story in a drastically different direction. The article dramatized the rise of teen gangs and described “rumbles” happening in immigrant neighborhoods all over LA and Manhattan. In Robert Emmet Long’s 2003 book Broadway, The Golden Years, Laurents mentions the article as the inspiration for a rethinking of East Side Story. “I suggested the blacks and Puerto Ricans in New York,” Laurents recalled to Long, “because this was the time of the appearance of teenage gangs and the problem of juvenile delinquency was very much in the news. It started to work.” “It” was the story that eventually became West Side Story. The central gang conflict was transferred onto a white gang and a Puerto Rican gang: the Jets versus the Sharks. Not only were Laurents and Robbins not gang members, but they also seemed to be basing West Side Story on what is now understood to be the racist assumption that the gangs of the West Side must surely have racial conflict. (At least one later anecdote suggests they were all white and only mildly criminal, nothing like the dangerous delinquents depicted onstage.) Laurents invented the onstage slang to approximate street lingo. And despite half the characters being Puerto Rican, almost no Spanish was spoken onstage in the original production. Writing for HowIRound in 2017, Yura Sapi explained the impact of West Side Story’s fabricated storyline: Not only was this mainstream story that depicted Puerto Rican migrants created and written by four white men, the story they chose to tell linked the Puerto Rican plight in New York in the 1950s to issues of gangs, not of migration, and the lead Puerto Rican character was played by a white Italian American actor. The Puerto Rican voice of the 1950s was stolen and rewritten for appropriated consumption. Meanwhile, the real issues the community faced as people looking for another shot at life as US citizens coming from a territory were ignored and essentially erased in the eyes of US American mass culture. Criticism of West Side Story’s lack of authenticity has sharpened and become more prevalent over the decades as a broader cultural understanding of West Side Story’s flaws and weaknesses has grown. In 2008, that understanding became part of the conversation around a brand-new musical — when In the Heights became the toast of Broadway. In the Heights presented itself as West Side Story’s down-to-earth polar opposite A half-century after West Side Story, Miranda’s own musical about intertwined lives and dreams in one Manhattan neighborhood presented itself as an example of authentic Latinx culture. Conceived and written by Miranda while he was still in college, the show was based loosely on people and events from his own life. He joined with another creator of Puerto Rican descent, playwright and future Pulitzer-winner Quiara Alegría Hudes, to write the book. Miranda, a lifelong New Yorker, contributed the score, showcasing his unique talent for rapping, rhyming, and mixing musical genres in a way that reflected his own melting-pot community, Washington Heights — not unlike the way Bernstein famously fused jazz with pop, classical elements, and other genres to create West Side Story’s distinctive urban soundscape. West Side Story, like Romeo and Juliet, is a full-blown Shakespearean tragedy. Where its dramatic conflict was larger than life, most of the dramatic conflicts that move In the Heights are deliberately small scale. In the Heights is, in many ways, akin to the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, in that its goal isn’t to present an epic, operatic drama but to thread the language of musical theater through a plot about realistic characters in everyday situations. Its characters deal with modern conflicts: struggles to make ends meet, fears of disappointing their parents, and conflicts between wanting love and wanting success. It’s a sprightly, uplifting musical whose characters are reflections of Miranda himself: resilient, passionate, optimistic, and upbeat. The factors that render the community unstable are largely systemic: Money is tight. College is expensive. The power keeps going out in Washington Heights. The rickety neighborhood infrastructure underscores a fact that is called out in the opening song with a direct address to the audience. Miranda’s character Usnavi (now played in the movie by Anthony Ramos) sings: “Now you’re prob’ly thinking, “I’m up shit’s creek / I’ve never been north of 96th Street” — invoking the truth that most of Broadway’s traditional viewership has little awareness that Manhattan exists above Central Park. Part of Miranda’s experiment with In the Heights involved inviting and engaging floods of new audiences, an approach he would later perfect with Hamilton in 2015. His efforts seemed to be a success: The show easily nabbed a Broadway run off the back of a hit off-Broadway engagement, and most critics were effusive about the show’s energy, ambitions, production, and performances. In the Heights went on to snag four Tony awards, including Best Score and Best Musical. Where In the Heights lost fans was in the smallness of its storytelling. “Mr. Miranda and Ms. Hudes’s panorama of barrio life is untagged by any graffiti suggesting authentic despair, serious hardship or violence,” the New York Times’ Charles Isherwood chastised the off-Broadway production, as if unable to imagine a Latin community untouched by hardship and at peace with itself. The Daily News pined for “a show that had something to say that resonated beyond the 181st St. subway stop.” Increasingly, modern audiences understand that these are the kinds of criticisms often used to gatekeep and stereotype diverse creators and prevent them from telling their own stories and sharing their own experiences. (“We should be able to be onstage without a knife in our hand,” Miranda said in 2015.) In 2008, In the Heights’ popularity helped galvanize a new generation of theater fans to tell their own stories. Perhaps even more impressive, it helped galvanize the then 91-year-old Arthur Laurents to revise his own musical masterpiece. The two musicals have had intertwined legacies since In the Heights debuted “Puerto Ricans, West Side — ring a bell?” New York magazine asked its 2007 review of In the Heights, then opening off-Broadway. The review’s title, “Something’s Coming,” was a direct reference to the song of the same name from West Side Story and demonstrated how linked the two shows were in the minds of Broadway audiences from the start. That link further cemented itself in 2008 when In the Heights’ success spurred Laurents to invite Miranda to take part in his radical new project: revising and directing an unprecedented bilingual revival of West Side Story. The production, which Laurents directed just three years before his death, was reportedly inspired by an all-Spanish production of the show in Colombia. In a feature story promoting the 2009 production, producer Jeffrey Seller described Laurents’ motive: As Seller tells the story, Laurents’s former lover, who after years of study had become bilingual in Spanish, traveled to Colombia and attended a production of West Side Story performed entirely in Spanish. Upon returning to the States, he relayed to Arthur that for the first time it seemed as though the heroes were the Sharks, not the Jets. Arthur determined that it must have been because the Sharks were speaking their own language and had “home court advantage.” This led to the question: “What would happen if [someone] did West Side Story in English and Spanish, in which all of the characters could speak in their native tongue?” And in that question was the answer to “Why do West Side Story?”: “To give cultural integrity back to the Latinos — back to the Puerto Ricans.” And thus the new bilingual revival of West Side Story was born. Hoping to bolster the realism, rewrite Sondheim’s lyrics into Spanish, and add more Puerto Rican flourishes to the script, Laurents and Sondheim turned to Miranda, who was still enjoying his hit Broadway debut that same season. In a 2009 interview about the revival, Miranda neatly summed up the longstanding criticisms and contradictions of the show. “I think West Side Story for the Latino community has been our greatest blessing and our greatest curse,” he said. “As a piece of art, I think it’s just about as good as it gets. It also represented our foot in the door as an artistic community on Broadway. At the same time, because it’s just about the only representation of Latinos on Broadway and it’s about gangs, that’s where it gets tricky.” Laurents’ interest in making a bilingual West Side Story that restores agency to the Puerto Ricans now seems entirely in line with the way we think about these kinds of narratives in 2021; after all, over the last decade, Broadway has welcomed several major productions that expanded their authenticity by daring to be multilingual, like the 2015 Deaf West revival of Spring Awakening, which prominently featured sign language, and the popular 2018 all-Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof. In 2008, however, the notion of swapping out up to 20 percent of West Side Story’s original script proved a hard sell for Broadway, even though the change was sanctioned by the original writer. When the bilingual production finally premiered on Broadway in 2009, critics seemed baffled by the need for revision, with Reuters reviewer Frank Scheck describing the changes as “gimmicky.” He added, “The idea that a musical as brilliant as ‘West Side Story’ would require reinventing seems a bit dubious.” Audiences resisted the changes too and, eventually, despite the hype surrounding the project, most of Miranda’s carefully spun Spanish lyrics were quietly changed back to English. Today, we recognize that reinvention is a way to update legacy works of media so they may stay fresh and relevant, especially to new generations of audiences. Reinvention has, more and more, become the story of West Side Story’s subsequent revival attempts. But West Side Story is a creaky legacy work that resists easy updates. Beginning with Laurents’s efforts to inject more realism into the gritty lives of the show’s characters and continuing with the latest 2020 Broadway production, those update attempts have only made it clear how unwieldy such overhauls can be. “The problem with treating the musical’s stylized representations as documentary realism is that it presents ethnic caricatures as news footage,” the Atlantic’s Daniel Pollack-Pelzner explained. “[T]o accept the musical as an account of contemporary migrant trauma is to verge on parody. ... As a Latinx musical, West Side Story is incoherent and insulting. As the mid-century fantasy of queer Jewish artists, however, it’s surprisingly compelling.” It’s not yet clear how Spielberg’s film will deal with these tensions. Certainly, the 1961 film adaptation has its own set of problems, including a largely whitewashed cast. The new film is much more diverse; there’s also a nod to the 1961 adaptation in the casting of Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for supporting lead Anita in the earlier film and is now playing a new female character. “There are things that are done in this movie that weren’t in the original, that should have,” she stated in a recent interview. What does seem clear is that In the Heights is now poised to enter the cultural conversation on a similar scale as West Side Story — not overriding the earlier work but expanding and continuing the conversation around it as the show and its adaptations continue to evolve. Perhaps, the best way to approach West Side Story, then, is neither to “cancel” it for being imperfect nor to overhaul it into a parody of itself and a parody of contemporary politics. It’s to simply allow various versions of it to exist, flaws and all, and to make space for more creators like Miranda, with more stories and perspectives. In other words, as the lyrics of West Side Story’s “Somewhere” attest, it’s to make “a place for us” — the new alongside the old. In the case of these two film adaptations, that happened literally: Both productions were shot in the summer of 2019, literally right next to each other. “It was a surreal moment, to walk basically 60 years through musical-theatre history in the space of two blocks,” Miranda told Empire in May. That physical closeness also underscores the films’ interconnectedness — and reminds us that stories with complicated histories can coexist with newer stories whose histories are still unfolding.
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One possible cause of the 2020 murder increase: More guns
People participate in a demonstration and news conference against illegal guns in front of the Jacob Javits Federal Building on August 12, 2019, in New York. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images Police are pointing fingers at protests to explain the murder increase. The data suggests the story is more complicated. The year 2020 saw the largest recorded increase in homicides in United States history — an increase likely propelled by a complex mix of factors, from more guns to stresses of the pandemic to fewer police officers on the streets to a crisis in relations between police and citizens. But one persistent theory is that a change in policing last summer primarily drove increased gun violence. This is an especially popular explanation among law enforcement figures. Former Baltimore Police Department Deputy Commissioner Jason Johnson recently argued that the real driver of last year’s murder rise was a severe decline in police activity, especially after protests erupted last summer in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. St. Louis Police Commissioner John Hayden suggested that the police resources devoted to protests prevented officers from engaging in neighborhood policing. Former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly said police were “stretched to the limit” by the protests and coronavirus restrictions. Summarizing widespread reductions in stops and arrests, Johnson wrote that “when the Thin Blue Line retreats, violence charges in.” But data from numerous large American cities complicates that narrative, suggesting that the change in policing alone is not sufficient to explain last year’s large increase in murder and that a growing number of firearms on the streets likely played a significant role. It’s true that police activity, as measured by stops and arrests, declined significantly in 2020. Still, despite that drop, and weeks before Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests, police began finding firearms more often than in previous years. This pattern does not support the idea that overwhelmed police forces weren’t able to take guns off the streets, leading to a surge in violence. Instead, the spike in firearms as a percentage of stops and arrests provides evidence that there were simply more guns on the streets throughout 2020 than in the past, which may have intensified other sources of violence and contributed to the historic rise in murders. While there is no standardized, national open data on stops, information on police activity in 10 cities that we compiled points toward the same pattern. First, stops and arrests fell rapidly in each city in March and April 2020, driven by pandemic restrictions on police contact or due to fewer people being outside (and thus available to be stopped by police). Data analysis by Jeff Asher and Rob Arthur If less policing alone led to increased violence, we would have expected to see an uptick in March and April after this clear change. But there was no observable increase in gun violence in these cities at that time. Police activity dropped again after Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in late May 2020, this time with an accompanying surge in shootings in many cities. Cities generally saw stops and arrests increase over the last few months of 2020 — though still below pre-pandemic levels — with the elevated level of violence remaining. While the volume of stops and arrests fell dramatically in March and April in all 10 cities, police in every city were more likely to find a firearm when they made stops and arrests. In Chicago, for example, police stops decreased nearly 70 percent between January and May 2020, but officers actually found 83 percent more firearms in May than in January. Jens Ludwig, director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, analyzed stops in Chicago and concluded that “unless the police have become dramatically better at figuring out who is illegally carrying a gun (and so have become better at figuring out who to stop), the implication is that lots more people are carrying guns illegally in Chicago.” The same pattern was seen across numerous cities with available data. There were 34 percent fewer arrest charges in Los Angeles in April and May 2020 compared to April and May 2019, but charges for weapons possession were up. The problem was not confined just to big cities, either. In Tucson, Arizona, for example, there were 39 percent fewer arrests in April and May 2020 compared to a year earlier but 29 percent more arrests for weapons or firearms possession. Data analysis by Jeff Asher and Rob Arthur The share of stops or arrests that resulted in a firearm being found increased in every city. In Washington, DC, the share of all arrests that were weapons violations went from 5 percent in January to March 2020, to 7 percent in April and 9 percent in May. The share of arrests for weapons possession went from 1 percent between January and March 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina, to 4 percent between April and December. Almost every city followed the same pattern: a dramatic jump in the share of arrests or stops with a firearm in April and May, a decline in June, and a return to the earlier elevated levels for the remainder of the year. The legitimacy crisis in law enforcement The implication of this trend is that — assuming police did not suddenly become substantially better at identifying who has an illegal gun — firearm carrying increased at the beginning of the pandemic, well before the protests, and persisted at that level for the remainder of the year. It is possible that in the midst of the pandemic, police started engaging in better-targeted stops that were more likely to yield arrests. But finding other kinds of contraband, like drugs, did not become more frequent, only guns. Data on investigatory stops — defined as stops “based upon reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime” — in Chicago is instructive and suggests more firearms were found because more were being carried, rather than a change in policing strategy. The share of searches in investigative stops that found drugs just before Covid-19 lockdowns was virtually unchanged after Covid-19, going from 20.9 percent between October 2019 and March 2020 to 20.7 percent between April and September 2020. The demographics of searches did not change much, either, with Black people making up 74.3 percent of people searched in stops from October 2019 to March 2020 and 76.1 percent from April through December. But CPD officers found firearms in 11.5 percent of searches from April to September, compared to 3.7 percent of searches in the six months prior. Since all cities with data had an increase in the share of stops or arrests with a gun at around the same time, no one change in departmental or prosecutorial policy can explain why. Investigative stops and arrests show an increase in firearm carrying beginning in March or April, shortly after background checks surged to unprecedented levels nationally. More firearms could have contributed to the historic rise in murders in 2020 by turning less dangerous crimes into potentially lethal encounters. Police finding more firearms in stops and arrests does not fit with the idea that a decrease in proactive police activity targeting firearms was the major driver for 2020’s historic murder totals, though it certainly cannot be ruled out as a contributing factor. Johnson put the blame on progressive prosecutors, writing that “making arrests for drug and weapons crimes that will go unprosecuted exposes officers to the risk of disciplinary action, lawsuits and criminal prosecution. To mitigate that risk, police take a more passive approach.” But firearm arrests increased 42 percent in Philadelphia — home of progressive prosecutor Larry Krasner — between April and December 2020, compared to the same time frame in 2019. The data all points to substantially more complex causes behind the rise in murder than the simple narrative of a change in policing as the sole or even main driver. It is plausible, though, that the summer’s drops in stops and arrests, protests against police violence, and increases in gun violence are all symptoms of the same disease: what criminologists David Pyrooz, Justin Nix, and Scott Wolfe recently called a “legitimacy crisis in the criminal justice system,” the result of intensifying distrust in “the law and its gatekeepers” as a result of injustice. Writing in the Denver Post, they said that a “legitimacy crisis is consequential for three reasons. The first is depolicing, where officers pull back from proactive policing in response to public criticism. Second, depleted trust in the law means citizens will think twice about calling the police to report crimes or suspicious behaviors. Lastly, delegitimacy of the law emboldens criminal offending populations, as the moral obligation to follow the law is weakened.” The trend toward more firearms sales and more guns on the street seems to have continued into 2021. Background checks accelerated even beyond last year’s peak in the first three months of this year. And the latest data from these cities’ stops shows that police are finding as many guns as they did in the second half of 2020. Early figures from many cities show murders have increased from last year’s baseline as well. If the greater availability of firearms contributed to last year’s violence, the latest arrest data suggests it may contribute even more deaths to 2021’s murder total. Rob Arthur is an independent journalist and data scientist based in Chicago. He’s on Twitter at @No_Little_Plans. Jeff Asher is a crime analyst based in New Orleans and co-founder of AH Datalytics. You can find him on Twitter at @Crimealytics.
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How stressed out are factory-farmed animals? AI might have the answer.
Pigs eat from a trough at the Las Vegas Livestock pig farm in 2019. | John Locher/AP The promise and perils of using facial recognition technology on animals. Facial recognition technology is rapidly becoming ubiquitous, used in everything from security cameras to smartphones. But in the near future, humans may not be the only ones to be digitally captured. Researchers are training forms of artificial intelligence to recognize individual animals by their faces alone — and even discern their emotional state just by reading their expressions. Much of the research into animal facial expressions has focused on species like dogs and horses. But some of the most cutting-edge work is aimed at an unlikely subject: the farmed hog. The typical hog factory farm employs a small number of workers to oversee hundreds, or even thousands, of pigs — too many for the people running the facility to tell which ones might be in distress. Researchers at the Centre for Machine Vision at the University of West England, where pig emotion recognition work is being conducted, envision this technology could be used to help farmworkers more readily identify sickness and injury. If AI can routinely scan the pigs’ faces and alert workers to particularly stressed-out animals, treatment can come sooner and suffering can be reduced. There is even potential for the technology someday advancing to the point of detecting “happiness” in pigs — a holy grail for animal ag. But while the idea of learning more about what animals are feeling is self-evidently enticing — why wouldn’t we want to learn more about them? — some animal welfare advocates question the very premise of this research. While the bulk of the funding is from the UK government, one reason for the skepticism is that the research is partly supported by companies in the meat and agriculture industry, including a pig genetics company that has availed its farms for the study. It’s not hard to see that industry’s interest in this work: Keeping more pigs alive under intensive conditions would be a financial boon, as would being able to advertise how “happy” the animals were — something the Centre’s website suggests could be possible. And that all leads to a deeper question: Just how comfortable — let alone happy — can a pig be on a factory farm? In the US, nearly all pigs raised for meat are kept in unnatural, highly mechanized, and crowded conditions, given no access to the outdoors. Conditions are similar in much of the European Union, and factory farming is on the rise in low- and middle-income countries as global demand for meat increases. These environments are so difficult to endure that, by some estimates, up to 35 percent of US-raised pigs die before ever reaching the market. Carsten Koall/Getty Images Piglets crowd a stall inside a hog farm in Drahnsdorf, Germany, in 2016. The project of discerning the emotional state of pigs — and the meat industry’s larger push to invent new technology that promises to improve animal welfare — illustrates the fine line between meaningful efforts to reduce animal suffering and so-called “humane-washing,” where animal welfare is portrayed as being better than it actually is. There is a growing body of research that shows what changes farms could make today to reduce the suffering of farmed animals, like eliminating extreme confinement, ending breeding practices that make animals grow too big too fast, and providing outdoor access and enrichments designed to mimic experiences they would normally enjoy if left to their own devices. All of which raises the question: Who is this new technology really for — the pigs, or the humans who raise, slaughter, and eat them? How to identify stressed-out pigs The most cost-effective methods of raising animals tend to cause the most harm. Animals’ bodies become levers on which a balancing act is performed: expending the fewest resources (such as living space) while keeping animals alive and productive. Economic considerations often outweigh welfare, resulting in the inhumane conditions that are a hallmark of intensive animal agriculture. On the side of animal well-being are researchers like Melvyn Smith, director of the Centre for Machine Vision, for whom improving animal welfare is a big motivator in his quest to use AI to identify stressed-out pigs. “If we could understand how the animal is feeling, if the animal can tell us this itself, then that gives us an opportunity to tailor treatment and care for individual animals,” he told me. To try to understand how an animal is feeling, he and his colleagues, in partnership with Scotland’s Rural College, are building on past facial recognition research. They have already trained a form of deep-learning AI that is tailored to analyzing images, known as a convolutional neural network (CNN), to distinguish between individual pigs just by analyzing photos of their faces. This new project — aimed at recognizing emotions — adds a layer of nuance to this research by training the CNN to recognize the difference between stressed and unstressed pigs. The most cost-effective methods of raising animals tend to cause the most harm Like other deep learning algorithms, the Centre’s CNN learns by being exposed to data sets — in this case, thousands of photographs of pig faces that are likely to be experiencing stress or not. Cameras affixed just above the water spigot where pigs drink allow for close-up and relatively uniform images of each pig every time they take a sip. The CNN then analyzes each photograph, searching for subtle variations in the pigs’ faces around the eyes, the position of the ears, and other features. To observe whether pigs are stressed, the animals are placed in situations known to be either mildly stressful or preferable. Pigs kept in pens with multiple generations tend to experience stress (particularly true of younger pigs), whereas relatively stress-free environments can be created by giving pigs essentially an all-you-can-eat buffet. Saliva and blood can be measured to determine cortisol levels, a chemical associated with a stress response. With the three-year project about halfway complete, the results so far are impressive: The CNN is able to distinguish between pigs’ stressed and unstressed facial expressions more than 90 percent of the time. By helping AI recognize expressions related to core emotional states in pigs, farmworkers could be alerted to individuals that are experiencing discomfort, allowing for swifter medical attention or alterations to the pigs’ living environment. Caring for farmed animals as individuals is becoming increasingly difficult due to intensive animal agriculture operations. On smaller-scale farms, workers are able to spend far more time with individual pigs, getting to know animals’ personalities and watch out for suggestions that they may be unwell. But most pigs live on factory farms, where just a few workers can be responsible for the care of thousands of animals. And factory farms are ramping up around the world: In the US, where factory farming has become the norm for animal agriculture generally, nearly 130 million pigs were raised and slaughtered in 2019 alone. The UK saw intensive pig farming increase 26 percent between 2011 and 2017. In China, a “hog hotel” factory farm consisting of a collection of buildings reaching 12 stories into the sky clocks in as the biggest multi-story hog farm on the planet, with the capacity to house upward of 1,000 pigs per floor. Christian Adam via Getty Images A sow with her piglets in a farrowing crate in Germany. Factory farms are ramping up around the world. It is no easy task to keep pigs alive within the crowded indoor conditions of factory farms. According to the Iowa Pork Industry Center at Iowa State University, about one in three pigs die before reaching the market due to factors like stillbirth, sow crushing, infectious diseases, and poor air quality. Not only does this figure represent massive economic losses for the industry, it also demonstrates the sheer scale of health problems pigs on factory farms must regularly contend with, many of which can cause chronic physical and psychological pain even when they are not ultimately fatal. Identifying negative emotions like stress could help reduce the suffering of farmed pigs. But the research won’t end there: The next goal is detecting subtler emotions, including happiness. Can animals have a good life on a factory farm? Interest in animal facial expressions seems to be growing within the scientific community. Facial coding systems are being developed for species like horses and dogs, where expressions related to pain or frustration are being mapped out. Dogs have been observed to make “cute” faces at humans, while rats and chimps are perceived to smile and laugh when they are tickled. But is happiness something that can be measured by facial expression? Smith’s team wants to find out. Once the current study on pig stress is complete, the next stage will be seeing whether the CNN can detect other, more nuanced emotions, perhaps one day giving “farmers and their prospective customers an idea of how happy their pigs are,” as the Centre’s website notes. But technology capable of detecting happiness and more subtle or complex emotions is not without controversy. When it’s applied to human beings, critics warn of the inaccuracies arising with a one-to-one mapping of prototypical expressions to emotions. A scowl doesn’t always mean anger; a furrowed brow doesn’t always denote concentration. Further complicating the matter is that happiness is a philosophically elusive concept even when it comes to Homo sapiens, since there remains a lack of consensus over what exactly constitutes happiness. Fleeting moments of pleasure, joy, or contentment, along with longer-term experiences of an engaged, meaningful life, are thought to be among the ingredients associated with states of happiness in people. While the constituents of happiness probably look different depending on the species, certain conditions are more likely to guarantee the suppression of happiness regardless of the kind of animal. “Pigs can never be happy in factory farms,” says Lori Marino, director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy and an expert in animal behavior who co-authored a study on pig cognition and emotion. To Marino, “a CAFO [concentrated animal feeding operation] is so far from what a pig needs to thrive that it could not be a place that would make a pig happy or content. They are not designed for pig happiness.” Charlie Neibergall/AP Inside a CAFO, or concentrated animal feeding operation, in Lawler, Iowa, in 2018. “I also worry that these companies will only share data that are self-serving and the data will be biased toward convincing people that pigs are happy in CAFOs,” she continued. These concerns may be well-founded. People and businesses that use animals often state that the animals under their control are happy, like the California Milk Advisory Board’s “Happy Cow” campaign or Elon Musk’s “totally happy” lab monkey. Such claims of animal happiness can be dubious given the mounting science revealing the extent to which animals can be harmed in captivity. One of Marino’s other studies looks at how captivity can cause brain damage in some animals, impairing cognitive functions such as memory and decision-making. Other researchers conducted a study that found horses that were confined within stalls emitted brain waves associated with states like depression and anxiety, whereas horses allowed to roam in herds on pastures showed brain waves associated with feelings of calm. Pregnant pigs kept in gestation crates, cages that are barely bigger than their bodies, are known to become unresponsive over time — behavior that has been linked to depression. Much is already known about the emotional state of animals in captivity without state-of-the-art tech telling us. Smith’s inquiry into whether pigs are happy on farms may find they’re not, but that doesn’t deter him. He says he is interested in switching the longstanding emphasis within the animal research community from detecting simply an absence of negative emotions to detecting positive emotions, and that this might lead to a better understanding of what contributes to higher quality of life and happiness for pigs. But given that the current project is partly supported by industry stakeholders, including the farming technology company AgSense (owned by Valmont Industries), JSR Genetics Ltd. (a pig breeding company), and Garth Pig Practice (a veterinary consulting service), skepticism about the uses of this technology is in order. (AgSense, Valmont Industries, and Garth Pig Practice did not respond to requests for comments for this article.) Moving the needle on animal welfare The intensive animal agriculture industry is facing increasing scrutiny of operations that not only harm animals but give rise to a litany of damaging consequences, from perpetuating environmental racism — especially in North Carolina, where hog farms disproportionately pollute predominantly Black communities — to accelerating climate change. Demands to abolish factory farming altogether are growing louder. Still, improvements in farmed animal welfare are worthwhile since it’s unlikely factory farming is going away anytime soon. Once implemented, the Centre’s CNN may quantifiably improve the welfare of pigs on factory farms, even if incrementally. But while there’s still much to learn about animal welfare, there’s even more that we already know. If the pork sector were concerned with animal thriving, practices known to cause chronic stress — such as gestation crates — would already be eradicated. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images Greenpeace activists call on European Parliament members to vote against livestock factory farms in Brussels in 2019. There exists abundant evidence of the pain male piglets endure when they are castrated without anesthesia, yet these mutilations continue to be widespread. Confining pigs indoors within crowded, barren pens on concrete flooring can lead to abnormal biting behaviors that can devolve into cannibalism — something that can be addressed by giving pigs additional space and covering floors with natural materials like peat or compost. AI technology may one day yield deeper insights into farmed animals’ emotional states. And there’s some genuine value in research diving into what animals are feeling. The question that looms over the use of such tech in a factory farming context is whether we already know enough anyway. Laura Bridgeman is an award-winning writer interested in gender, food systems, and justice. Her essay on Western dominator identity is featured in The Routledge Handbook of Ecocultural Identity (2020). Find her on Twitter @laura_bridgeman.
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