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Amazon shows how trickle-down inequality works

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Sarah Jones writes in the “Intelligencer” section of New York:

Bill Bodani liked his old job. He cleaned slag out at the Sparrows Point steel mill in Maryland, cleared the flues and the broken brick out of the blast furnace. He loved it despite the asbestosis it gave him, writes Alec MacGillis in his new book, Fulfillment. “I enjoyed the people,” Bodani told MacGillis. “They made it enjoyable. The Black, the white. It was a family thing. I don’t care if you knew them for five minutes, they took you in. No matter how bad I got hurt, or how bad things got, there was always a bright side. You had those guys with you.”

Until he didn’t. The mill closed, and Bodani needed a new job. He found one with Amazon, working in a Baltimore-area fulfillment center. He started out at $12 an hour — much less than he’d made at the mill. He’d traded his old friends for a place that would, as MacGillis put it, fire workers “by algorithm.” And Bodani had a problem. He was older, and he needed to use the bathroom more often than did his younger co-workers. When he had used up his breaks, he resorted to an undignified option. He’d piss in a corner of the warehouse, using a forklift as a privacy shield.

MacGillis completed Bodani’s story before the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union announced that it would try to unionize the first Amazon warehouse in the country in Bessemer, Alabama. Workers there reported their own versions of Bodani’s problem. The company regimented their days so strictly that they often didn’t have the time they needed to use the restroom. The union still lost, an election now contested before the National Labor Relations Board. Despite the outcome, the stories stick. Workers said they couldn’t stay six feet apart from each other in the middle of a pandemic, spoke of dirty workstations that never got clean. Amazon, they insisted, was a bad place to work. Why, then, are cities so desperate to bring Amazon home?

In Fulfillment, MacGillis, a reporter for ProPublica and the author of 2014’s The CynicThe Political Education of Mitch McConnell, offers answers. The digital economy has fattened a handful of cities while others, often old industrial hubs, fall behind. There is historical precedent for industries to cluster: “History,” he writes, “is the story of cities with the right confluence of people in close quarters to spin the world forward, whether in classical Athens or Renaissance Florence or industrial-age Glasgow.” That dynamic, however, has “trebled” in recent years, he claims, with innovation the new resource to mine. Amazon and Microsoft swelled Seattle, brought it new wealth, a new class of resident, and a new set of problems. That wealth never reached a number of Seattle’s long-term residents, who could recall an older, more livable version of a vibrant city. What dispersed out from Seattle was not wealth, either, but something else. Inequality trickled down.

MacGillis understands the bargain Amazon offers the public and explores the consequences of that bargain with a sharp, humane eye. He succeeds in telling a story about Amazon from the bottom up — the right way to scrutinize a company that projects a progressive image. Amazon wants us to believe it treats its workers well: It pays them $15 an hour now, a fact it has repeatedly tweeted to its congressional critics. Other companies, even governments, ought to follow Amazon’s stellar example, the company says. MacGillis argues that governments have already been too eager to take Amazon at its word, and that the consequences, for workers and for the places they live, have been catastrophic.

To cities in need of jobs, Amazon can look like a savior. But salvation is an exchange: a soul for a different future. MacGillis argues that this trade is good for Jeff Bezos alone; workers and cities lose out in both a psychological and material sense. Bill Bodani has nothing to offer the new economy but his body. Amazon accepts, and forces him to accept something even more nefarious than a pay cut. To take a job at the mill was to join a community. Young high-school graduates, MacGillis writes, had walked into a union and the welcoming arms of their uncles and fathers. By contrast, the warehouse is a sterile place. Workers are welcomed not with warm introductions but with “a sheet of paper scrawled with AMAZON” and representatives for an Amazon subcontractor. The job itself can be isolating, as Amazon workers themselves have reported; steep quotas and pervasive surveillance offer few opportunities to socialize. This is a useful union-avoidance strategy. It’s also a spiritual blow.

Once cities like Sparrows Point offer up their souls, Amazon gives them a cheap future. Corporations rarely make decisions out of abundant public spirit; Amazon is no exception to the rule. Instead, it eludes taxes. MacGillis calls Amazon’s approach to tax avoidance “a veritable Swiss Army knife, with an implement to wield against every possible government tab,” and the description lines up with reality. Amazon paid no federal income tax for two years before coughing up a paltry $162 million in 2019. It settles upon cities and towns like a locust, chewing up tax breaks totaling $2.7 billion by 2019, according to MacGillis. In 2018, Amazon threatened to cancel a planned expansion in Seattle, its home turf, over an employee-hours tax intended to address the city’s homelessness crisis. The city council passed it, only to reverse itself less than a month later.

In smaller cities, the costs of attracting Amazon can be especially steep. Consider . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2021 at 2:53 pm

13 investigations, no court-martials: Here’s how the US Navy and Marine Corps quietly discharged white supremacists

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Will Carless reports in USA Today:

For decades, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have quietly kicked out some of the worst white supremacists in their ranks, offering them administrative discharges that leave no public record of their hateful activity, a USA TODAY review of Navy documents found.

The documents, obtained via a public-records request by the open-government advocacy group American Oversight, detail 13 major investigations into white supremacist activity in the Navy and Marine Corps over more than 20 years. They show a pattern in which military leaders chose to deal with personnel involved in extremism by dismissing them in ways that would not attract public attention.

Take what happened to Edward Fix and Jacob Laskey.

In the early hours of Dec. 10, 2000, three white men left a neo-Nazi rally and headed to downtown Jacksonville, Florida. They were looking for a Black person to beat up, according to the Navy records.

On Main Street, they found John Joseph Newsome, 44. They beat him severely with their fists, boots and a broken bottle, all the while shouting “Kill the n—–,” according to the documents.

Then they went looking for another victim.

The trio was soon arrested and charged with aggravated battery causing great bodily harm and committing a hate crime. All three pleaded guilty to felonies and were sentenced to varying terms in the Duval County jail.

But two of the men faced another investigation. Fix and Laskey were enlisted members of the United States Navy, serving at nearby bases.

Yet the two sailors never faced military charges, which likely would have resulted in them being dishonorably discharged if they had been found guilty.

Instead, the Navy dismissed them via administrative discharges. Their only punishment from the Navy for almost beating a man to death in a racially-motivated hate crime was to lose their jobs, documents show.

Fix and Laskey entered civilian life with barely a blot on their military record. Fix fared even better: Because he had cooperated with civilian prosecutors, the felony conviction never went on his record.

13 investigations into white supremacy. No court-martials.

The Navy records describe investigations into allegations of white supremacist assault, theft, verbal abuse, threats and even gang crimes between 1997 and 2020.

One investigation involved members of a white supremacist gang called the “RRR”— an apparent nod to the KKK — who branded themselves with lighters and got in fights with nonwhite Marines.

In another case, a female sailor started one of the earliest online white supremacist message boards. She bragged about her top-secret security clearance while writing screeds about Hitler, Jews and Black people.

Not one of the 13 investigations resulted in a military trial, known as a court-martial, according to the documents. That’s the only way a member of the military can receive what’s called a “punitive discharge” such as a dishonorable or bad conduct discharge.

Instead, some of the personnel received small fines or pay cuts. Most of the troops who were let go received a general discharge under honorable conditions, the most mild administrative discharge.

Besides the 13 cases, records for another 10 have not been released because they are being reviewed, said a spokeswoman for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which investigates felony-level criminal activity.

Most of the cases in the documents were never written about in the media. The names of Navy personnel are redacted, along with other identifying details. USA TODAY identified a few through other sources, but most remain anonymous.

What most of the accused white supremacists went on to do after leaving the Navy is also unknown.

a’s most violent and notorious neo-Nazis. At the time of the beating, he already sported a chest tattoo of a swastika, according to the civilian prosecutor who handled his case.

Less than two years after the Navy let him go, Laskey was involved in an attack on a synagogue full of worshippers. He was convicted of throwing bricks etched with swastikas through the windows of the temple. After spending more than a decade in prison, he was released in 2018, only to quickly be charged with assaulting and stabbing another neo-Nazi.

He was released in 2020, sporting a mask of facial tattoos including the words “white power” inked across his jawbone.

Laskey could not be reached for comment. Fix, whose last known address was in Rochester, New York, didn’t respond to calls.

Navy officials said the documents viewed by USA TODAY represent only the most severe instances of white supremacy investigated in the ranks. Most incidents are dealt with internally rather than being formally investigated, according to military law experts and service members. That means there’s no paper trail.

The military doesn’t track how many people are removed for extremist activity, but there are signs that incidents of white supremacy are rising among troops, reflecting a surge in hate crimes among the general population.

More than a third of active-duty military personnel reported seeing white supremacist or ideologically driven racism while on duty, according to a 2019 survey by the Military Times. It’s higher for nonwhite members of the military. The 36% of respondents who reported seeing white supremacist or racist ideologies on display was up from 22% in 2018.

“As a country, we haven’t decided that white supremacy is something that we really want to acknowledge, let alone address in a major way,” said Sarah Vinson, a forensic psychiatrist and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Morehouse School of Medicine.

If the military truly wants to ferret out white supremacy, she said, transparency and consequences are critical. “If you allow things to go unchecked, they don’t magically get better and go away — they escalate.” . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it suggests some serious problems within the US military and the US itself, problems the US is trying to ignore.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2021 at 1:35 pm

Trump’s voter fraud crusade continues to unravel, apologize, and retreat

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Shouted accusations are being belatedly followed by muttered retractions and apparently painful apologies (usually issued in a frantic effort to evade a lawsuit). In the Washington Post Aaron Blake tracks some of this revision of views and retraction of statements:

The 2020 election is a case study in how unproved claims can be weaponized. For decades, former president Donald Trump’s party warned of significant voter fraud while successfully pushing policies such as voter ID. In 2016, Trump laid a predicate for contesting an election by suggesting there was massive fraud, even in an election he had won. By 2020, when Trump lost, it culminated in a huge portion of the electorate believing a “stolen election” theory for which there is vanishingly little actual evidence.

Some have done more than raise questions, though. They, like Trump and often in search of his allies’ support, have alleged actual massive fraud.

But now they’ve been asked to account for it. And crucially and increasingly, they have backed down.

The most recent example came Friday night — a time routinely used to bury bad news. In a statement, former Trump lawyer Joe diGenova apologized to Christopher Krebs, a Trump administration official who had debunked Trump’s fraud claims and whose execution diGenova had endorsed. DiGenova had said Krebs “should be drawn and quartered” and “taken out at dawn and shot.”

“On November 30, 2020, I appeared on the ‘Howie Carr Show.’ During the show, I made regrettable statements regarding Christopher Krebs, which many interpreted as a call for violence against him,” diGenova said. He added that “today I reiterate my public apology to Mr. Krebs and his family for any harm my words caused. Given today’s political climate, I should have more carefully expressed my criticism of Mr. Krebs, who was just doing his job.”

DiGenova’s apology refers to a past apology made on Newsmax’s airwaves, but back then he went even further in downplaying his comments. He maintained at the time that it was a poorly chosen joke and said that he apologized “for any misunderstanding of my intentions.”

The statement very notably comes months after Krebs announced in December that he was suing diGenova for defamation.

But Krebs is hardly the first to gain key concessions after launching legal action. Over and over, some of those spouting the most vociferous claims of electoral fraud — or providing a forum for them — have been forced to back off them.

Early on came Fox News and Fox Business Network running awkward segments on shows that had featured such claims — and whose hosts were later sued, alongside Fox — with an election expert dismissing claims of wrongdoing by voting machine companies. One of the hosts, Lou Dobbs, was soon pulled off the air.

Fellow conservative outlet Newsmax, where diGenova made his comment about Krebs, read its own disclaimer emphasizing the claims it had aired were unproved. At one point, it even sought to shut down Trump ally and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell as he was spouting such claims, with a host walking off the set when Lindell wouldn’t yield.

Another conservative cable TV outlet, One America News, sought to distance itself from Fox and Newsmax as an unapologetic promoter of Trump’s theories. But it, too, removed several stories from its website delving into the details of alleged fraud. And when it later ran Lindell’s infomercial on the topic, it included a lengthy disclaimer that sought to insulate itself from what he said. (Lindell has since been sued by Dominion Voting Systems, but he personally hasn’t backed down.)

Even Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani had a disclaimer attached to his radio program, which Giuliani bristled at as if he was unaware it was coming.

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel has also acknowledged to the New York Times that she worried about legal exposure from former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell making extreme allegations about voting machines while speaking at a news conference hosted by McDaniel’s employer. McDaniel acknowledged she was “concerned it was happening in my building” and thought about “what is the liability of the RNC if these allegations are made and unfounded?”

Lastly — at least before Friday — came Powell. She, too, has been sued. But in a recent filing, her lawyer argued that “reasonable people” wouldn’t take her claims as fact and that they would understand them as political rhetoric aimed at allowing the legal system to decide such cases. This despite Powell having said that she had conclusive proof of her bizarre claims and that the proof — in her words the “Kraken” — was forthcoming. The Kraken never arrived, and now Powell’s argument is basically that she shouldn’t be expected to produce it, even with the legal process of discovery providing an ideal venue.

That’s a case in point when it comes to these claims. All told, here is a list of people who have backed off (at least somewhat) in fear of litigation: Fox, Newsmax, OAN, Giuliani’s radio host, the RNC and now two former Trump lawyers.

The dynamics in each case are unique, and tempering your comments or comments made on your platform doesn’t mean admitting to wrongdoing. But these legal cases would be a great venue in which the defendants (and potential defendants) could press their case and actually defend the things that were said. Defamation involving public figures is also a high bar, in which you don’t even need to prove that what you said was true, but merely that it wasn’t knowingly false and that it wasn’t malicious. They have overwhelmingly chosen a different path: to distance from and disown the comments. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2021 at 3:46 am

“I Needed a Job. He Asked If I Was Proposing Marriage.”

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The creepiness and moral turpitude of Donald Trump and his administration have far-reaching ripple effects. Deboarh Kopaken provides examples in the Atlantic:

I was 8 when Patty Hearst was kidnapped. For several years, I was afraid to sit in a well-lit room after sundown, because I was next on the kidnappers’ list, and they were lurking in my backyard. I was sure of this.

Was my fear justified? Of course not. Was it real? One hundred percent yes.

Bill Clinton pardoned Hearst on his last day in office. When I heard the news, I cheered. The woman had been kidnapped at 19, raped, and held in a dark closet for 57 days, after which, suffering from Stockholm syndrome, she robbed a bank with her captors. Pardoning her seemed not only fair, but just.

Exactly 20 years later, on his last day in office, Donald Trump pardoned Ken Kurson. When I read the news, I cursed. This pardon was neither fair nor just.

Kurson was the editor of the Observer when it was owned by his friend Jared Kushner. Last fall, Kurson was arrested and charged with cyberstalking three people and harassing two others. According to the federal complaint, Kurson posted multiple malicious professional reviews of a former friend he spuriously blamed for the end of his marriage. He used an alias to send the friend’s colleagues and others threatening emails accusing her of sleeping with her boss, then stalked her at her workplace until her employers were forced to hire a security firm to protect her. His lawyer argued in a statement that the charges were overblown, and he was pardoned before the case went to trial.

After Kurson’s arrest, I kept scanning the news, hoping that Trump would be too busy being a sore loser and inciting insurrection to pardon Kurson. I was wrong. Which meant I would now spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder.

From November 2014 to late 2016, Ken Kurson sexually harassed me. I wrote about the degrading experience for this magazine in 2018. I composed the essay in the form of a tongue-in-cheek listicle (“How to Lose Your Job From Sexual Harassment in 33 Easy Steps”), because all too often, as we keep learning (and learning and learning), sexual harassment is not just one event or off-color comment, nor is it just the suggestive emails that followed: “In another life, I’d be Mr. Copaken”; “I love your sloppy seconds”; “Are you proposing marriage to me?” It’s a systematic abuse of power that can deny its victims work, money, and health insurance.

Kurson invited me to lunch after one of my stories for another publication went viral, and said he had a full-time job for me with benefits. I told my current boss I was quitting, only for Kurson to say that it was never an actual job offer, and that he couldn’t match my salary. But he dangled the possibility of a full-time position if I kept freelancing for him, while sending me wildly inappropriate emails about his crumbling marriage. I worried that he might be vengeful. “I consider this the Observer’s story,” he once wrote about one of my article pitches, “and you know I come from a grudge-holding desert people.”

I thought he was joking, but after that story was published in The New York Times, he stopped answering my emails for more than a month. Later, when I asked about a late payment for an article, he replied to say the money had finally been deposited in my account, adding, “Sorry you’re broke… Are you in love w anyone?”

(When The Atlantic asked Kurson for comment, he denied that there had been a job offer. About the emails, he said, “All of us have used language in the past that we now wish had been more artful,” adding, “I try my best to treat everyone I meet with kindness and respect.”)

At the time, I was a solo mother of three––two of them in college. With crushing tuition bills, an expensive cascade of illnesses requiring surgeries, and an empty bank account, I’d had to move to cheaper digs and nab the first full-time job with benefits I could find, as a flack for the pharmaceutical industry. This, along with ageism and a shrinking media industry, has derailed my journalism career to this day.

Following the publication of my story in The Atlantic in 2018, I was not surprised to be inundated with similar tales of woe. I was surprised by the number of tales featuring the same antagonist. I created a spreadsheet to organize them. Here are some excerpts:

“Ken was a creep to me, condescending as well … ”

“Your frightening experience with him gave me flashbacks … The way he spoke to me haunts me to this day … Drag the ogre into the daylight.”

“I woke up to your article about Ken Kurson. I had an insane, if not criminal, experience with him that I’d love to talk to you about.”

This last one was chilling. It came from a woman who knew one of the people Kurson was later charged with cyberstalking, and said she had received threatening emails from Kurson herself. When I called her, she recounted both stories of harassment. The behavior she described did indeed sound criminal. And vindictive. I shared it with Jesse Drucker, an investigative journalist at the Times. “Jesse, I need help,” I said. “I want to help this woman, but I feel like I’m out of my league.”

I forwarded him my spreadsheet, with the obvious caveat not to share it further. Then, just as Drucker started looking into each allegation, Trump nominated Kurson to the board of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Because of course this happened.

Drucker’s story, “The Trump Administration Considers an Old Friend: Ken Kurson,” appeared on May 11. “Concerning Ms. Copaken’s account, Mr. Kurson said, ‘I categorically deny any claim of inappropriate behavior.’”

In response to his denial, I posted a Twitter thread presenting some of the written evidence, email by creepy email.

At the end of the thread, I wrote the following: . . .

Continue reading. There’s more — and the FBI gets involved.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2021 at 5:36 pm

As Cuomo Sought $4 Million Book Deal, Aides Hid Damaging Death Toll

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Jesse McKinley, Danny Hakim, and Alexandra Alter report in the NY Times:

As the coronavirus subsided in New York last year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had begun pitching a book proposal that would center on his image as a hero of the pandemic. But by early last summer, both his book and image had hit a critical juncture.

Mr. Cuomo leaned on his top aide, Melissa DeRosa, for assistance. She attended video meetings with publishers, and helped him edit early drafts of the book. But there was also another, more pressing edit underway at the same time.

An impending Health Department report threatened to disclose a far higher number of nursing home deaths related to the coronavirus than the Cuomo administration had previously made public. Ms. DeRosa and other top aides expressed concern about the higher death toll, and, after their intervention, the number — which had appeared in the second sentence of the report — was removed from the final version.

The revisions occurred as the governor was on the brink of a huge payoff: a book deal that ended with a high offer of more than $4 million, according to people with knowledge of the book’s bidding process.

A New York Times examination of the development of Mr. Cuomo’s lucrative book deal revealed how it overlapped with the move by his most senior aides to reshape a report about nursing home deaths in a way that insulated the governor from criticism and burnished his image.

Mr. Cuomo also utilized the resources of his office — from his inner circle to far more junior personnel — to help with the manuscript. In late June and early July, for example, a top aide to the governor, Stephanie Benton, twice asked assistants to print portions of the draft of the book, and deliver them to Mr. Cuomo at the Executive Mansion in Albany, where he lives.

One of Ms. Benton’s directives came on June 27, the same day that Ms. DeRosa convened an impromptu teleconference with several other top advisers to discuss the Health Department draft report.

On Wednesday, Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to the governor, rejected any link between Mr. Cuomo’s book and the Health Department report.

“There is no connection between the report and this outside project, period,” Mr. Azzopardi said. “And any suggestion otherwise is just wrong.”

The book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic,” was a dramatic retelling of the battle against the virus in a state where nearly 50,000 people have died. It would garner Mr. Cuomo a fleeting spot on the best-seller list.

Emails and an early draft of Mr. Cuomo’s book obtained by The New York Times indicate that the governor was writing it as early as mid-June, relying on a cadre of trusted aides and junior staffers for everything from full-scale edits to minor clerical work, potentially running afoul of state laws prohibiting use of public resources for personal gain. . .

Continue reading. There’s more. MUCH more, and in damning detail: names, dates, actions. This is from the inside, and probably (given Cuomo’s management style) multiple sources.

To take a few paragraphs at random from a long sequence of such paragraphs:

Ms. DeRosa, the highest nonelected official in Mr. Cuomo’s office, was particularly involved with the development of the book, and was present during some online pitch meetings with Mr. Cuomo. The July 5 request, in fact, was to print a 224-page draft entitled “MDR edits” — a reference to Ms. DeRosa, who had sent the draft to Ms. Benton on July 4, according to the emails. The staffers communicated via personal Gmail accounts, not official governmental email addresses.

Mr. Azzopardi said that Ms. DeRosa and Ms. Benton had “volunteered on this project” during their free time, something he added was “permissible and consistent with ethical requirements” of the state.

As for the junior aides’ participation in tasks related to the book, he said, “Every effort was made to ensure that no state resources were used in connection with this project.”

“To the extent an aide printed out a document,” he said, “it appears incidental.”

Ms. DeRosa also had significant input on the July 6 report issued by the Department of Health, which basically cleared Mr. Cuomo’s administration of fault in its handling of nursing homes — discounting the impact of a March 2020 state memo that had asked such facilities to take in or readmit residents who had tested positive for the disease.

Critical changes had been made to the final version of the Health Department report, after concerns were raised about the data by Ms. DeRosa and a second Cuomo aide, Linda Lacewell, according to interviews and documents.

In two earlier drafts of the report, which were both reviewed by The Times, the second sentence said that “from March 1, 2020, through June 10, 2020, there were 9,844 fatalities among NYS nursing home residents with confirmed or suspected COVID-19.”

The earlier drafts were written by . . .

And it goes on, naming names. Cuomo is looking at criminal charges.

Later:

Mr. Cuomo, 63, has declined to confirm exactly how much he was paid for “American Crisis,” which was published by Crown Publishing Group in mid-October, just as a second wave of the coronavirus began to swell in New York.

Crown declined to comment on the sale price or confirm that it slightly exceeded $4 million, a large sum for an author whose previous memoir, “All Things Possible,” from 2014, sold fewer than 4,000 hardcover copies.

The governor’s office said he would donate a “significant portion” of the book’s proceeds to a Covid-related charity, though he has not indicated how much; on Wednesday, Mr. Azzopardi reiterated that the governor’s book payment and charitable contributions would be released with his tax returns and state-mandated financial disclosures, both of which are due in mid-May.

Since the book’s publication, . . .

Written by LeisureGuy

31 March 2021 at 9:44 pm

The paraquat poisoning problem carefully being ignored

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Sharon Lerner reports in the Intercept:

JON HEYLINGS WAS 34 when he found the notebook that would upend his life. A junior scientist at Imperial Chemical Industries, Heylings happened upon it in 1990 as he was trying to solve a mystery. Trained in toxicology, he had been brought to the company three years earlier to lead a team that would work to reduce the health risks of ICI products that contained the pesticide paraquat. He had spent much of that time testing formulations that did appear to be safer. Yet to Heylings’s puzzlement, the company hadn’t put them on the market. Curious about how ICI had arrived at the chemical concentrations in the version of the pesticide it was selling, he did some research in the corporate archives. There he came across the old book of notes that Michael Rose, a senior scientist at the company, had handwritten years earlier.

Heylings knew Rose and had seen his findings, which were known within the company as the Rose Report. ICI had used the report to justify the concentration at which it added a chemical called PP796 to its paraquat products. But the numbers and graphs he saw jotted in the notebook didn’t support the conclusion that Rose drew in his official report. “When I compared the data in his report to the original pharmaceuticals clinical trial data, I found they were different,” Heylings told The Intercept. “You know, very different.” While an accurate analysis would consider all the outcomes in an experiment, Rose had “cherry-picked,” according to Heylings. “He took some data out, he put some data in.”

The young scientist decided that he had to tell his bosses about his discovery — very carefully. “It’s taking a risk to criticize senior managers of fabrication, you know?” he said recently. “This wasn’t something to be discussed over coffee.” So he wrote up a memo documenting the problems with the data and explaining that based on the evidence he had just found, the concentration of PP796, an additive intended to protect against poisoning, should be 10 times higher than the amount in the Rose Report — and 10 times higher than the levels in Gramoxone, ICI’s bestselling paraquat product. He sent the memo to his manager, who assured him that he would send it on to the senior agrochemicals team. Satisfied that he had done the right thing, Heylings, a self-described “company man,” stayed in his job for another 18 years.

Heylings’s 1990 memo and the Rose Report, first drafted in 1976, are among almost 400 internal documents reviewed for this investigation, which The Intercept conducted in collaboration with the French newspaper Le Monde. More than 350 of those documents were disclosed by Syngenta, the successor to ICI, and other defendants in the course of ongoing litigation over the companies’ responsibility for personal injuries due to paraquat exposure. The nonprofit organizations Public Eye and Unearthed, an affiliate of Greenpeace, which have extensively researched both paraquat and PP796, supplied about three dozen more. Together, the thousands of pages of scrawled notes, stained letters, and meeting minutes, many of which are marked “company secret” and “confidential,” tell the story of corporate intransigence in the face of a dangerous but profitable product — what Heylings describes as “a conspiracy within the company to keep this quiet.”

Syngenta maintains that the concentration of PP796 that Rose calculated — the concentration still used in many of the company’s products today — is safe. “Our detractors have willfully misrepresented and mischaracterized a limited number of documents, which ordinarily form part of an entire dialogue on product design, and focused on them, making false accusations related to the weight we give to cost when considering safety,” Saswato Das, a spokesperson for Syngenta, wrote in an email.

But in the more than 40 years since Rose made his consequential calculations, many of the company’s own scientists have questioned his assertions. And during that time, tens of thousands of people have died from paraquat poisoning.

The Speedy Killer

Paraquat is prized for the speed at which it kills weeds. The chemical begins to disrupt plants’ cell membranes and interfere with photosynthesis on contact, causing them to visibly wither within hours. Because it acts so swiftly, paraquat was heralded as an agricultural breakthrough when it was introduced in the 1960s. Since then, hundreds of millions of pounds of the herbicide have been used in the U.S. alone. More than 10 million pounds were sprayed on corn, soybeans, grapes, and other fruits and vegetables in 2017, the last year data was available. And paraquat use is now on the rise, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The problem with paraquat — or one of them — is that the chemical that so quickly and effectively kills plants is also extraordinarily toxic to humans.

Continue reading. There’s more, and it is — or should be, were we not so desensitized — shocking.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2021 at 3:25 pm

California Sent $8 Billion to Counties to Improve Jails and Services But Failed to Track the Money, Says Auditor

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Stunning report by Jason Pohl for the Sacramento Bee and ProPublica. It begins

A decade after California embarked on a sweeping prison overhaul that diverted thousands of inmates to county jails, state and local governing bodies have failed to adequately track billions of dollars intended for improving county lockups and rehabilitating offenders, a state audit has found.

The lack of oversight has created enormous budget surpluses, opaque spending practices and progress reports to lawmakers that are “inconsistent and incomplete,” California Auditor Elaine M. Howle’s office said in a wide-ranging report issued Thursday.

The 2011 law signed by former Gov. Jerry Brown, which called the changes “realignment,” was designed to drastically reduce the population of California’s prisons, which were so overcrowded that the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in. The law sent billions of dollars to counties to bolster county jails and services throughout the state in exchange for housing more inmates.

But the audit, which was requested more than a year ago by a state senator following a surge of jail deaths reported on by The Sacramento Bee and ProPublica, found that county commissions that monitor the money and the California Board of State and Community Corrections have failed to adequately account for the spending.

“Without comprehensive planning and oversight, counties cannot ensure that their decisions regarding the use of public safety realignment funds are well informed,” the report says. “In addition, we found that counties do not adequately evaluate their realignment programs to determine their effectiveness or to ensure that they are spending public safety realignment funding in the most prudent manner.”

Howle’s report was focused on . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2021 at 2:56 pm

A Police Union Contract Puts Taxpayers on the Hook to Defend Officers When the City Won’t

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The idea of “moral hazard” is that if one suffers no real repercussions for bad acts, then the bad acts are likely to worsen. For example, bailing out incompetent and dishonest failing banks will simply result in more incompetence and dishonesty down the line because those things are (in effect) rewarded. And if police can act with absolute impunity and suffer only mild consequence of violence toward and mistreatment of non-police (for example, the only penalty being a week’s administrative leave — in effect, a week’s paid vacation), then police culture will remain unchanged. There is no pressure to change in terms of police department and personnel suffering the consequences: the judgments and settlements are paid by the municipality from the general fund (not the police fund).

Jake Pearson writes in ProPublica:

Even among the hundreds of videos capturing the violent police response to Black Lives Matter protests last year, this one stood out.

A muscular male officer, in a navy blue shirt with “NYPD” across the back, lunged at a young demonstrator, shoving her several feet and sending her crashing to the ground on a street in Brooklyn.

In a video shot by a reporter and shared widely on social media, the woman, Dounya Zayer, can be seen clutching her head and writhing in pain after she tumbles to the asphalt.

The mayor called the officer’s actions “absolutely unacceptable,” the police commissioner said internal affairs was investigating and, 11 days after the incident, the district attorney announced criminal charges against the officer, Vincent D’Andraia.

Zayer, 21, went on to file a lawsuit alleging that D’Andraia had violated her right to free speech, and last month, the city’s Law Department, which almost always represents officers sued for on-the-job actions, told D’Andraia it wouldn’t defend him in court.

It looked like the city was cutting the cop loose, a step rarely taken in the hundreds of lawsuits filed every year against NYPD officers. But while a city lawyer won’t be representing D’Andraia in court, it turns out New Yorkers are still paying the law firm that is representing him in the case.

That’s because every year, the city treasury effectively bankrolls a union-controlled legal defense fund for officers. The little-known fund is financed in part by a direct city contribution of nearly $2 million a year that is expressly intended to pay for lawyers in civil cases like D’Andraia’s, where the Law Department has decided an officer’s conduct is essentially indefensible. Or, as the police union’s legal plan puts it, “when the City of New York fails or otherwise refuses to provide a legal defense.”

The money isn’t supposed to be used by the union, the Police Benevolent Association, “in any action directly or indirectly adverse to the interests of the City,” according to a 1985 letter memorializing the deal that established the annual taxpayer contribution. But the agreement doesn’t define those “interests,” and the city is typically a co-defendant in such cases, as it is in the lawsuit by Zayer. So even as the city might distance itself from an officer, it could still argue that the government’s legal interests are best served by its employee having robust legal representation.

“It’s not bad public policy to invest and make sure that all sides have adequate representation,” said Zachary Carter, who ran the Law Department from 2014 to 2019.

But critics say that subsidizing such defenses could undercut police accountability by sending a message to officers that the city will back them no matter what.

“The bottom line is this is scandalous,” said Joel Berger, a lawyer who specializes in police abuse cases and who, in the 1990s, served as a senior official in the Law Department who decided when the city should withdraw representation of officers. “It was a sweetheart deal with the union and it should never have been agreed to.”

Neither the mayor’s office nor the Law Department would address detailed questions from ProPublica about the fund, including . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2021 at 2:51 pm

“I Survived 18 Years in Solitary Confinement”

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Ian Manuel was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole when he was 14 years old. He spent 18 years in solitary confinement. His forthcoming memoir, My Time Will Come, describes his experience. His essay in the NY Times is presumably extracted from that book. It begins:

Imagine living alone in a room the size of a freight elevator for almost two decades.

As a 15-year-old, I was condemned to long-term solitary confinement in the Florida prison system, which ultimately lasted for 18 consecutive years. From 1992 to 2010. From age 15 to 33. From the end of the George H.W. Bush administration to the beginnings of the Obama era.

For 18 years I didn’t have a window in my room to distract myself from the intensity of my confinement. I wasn’t permitted to talk to my fellow prisoners or even to myself. I didn’t have healthy, nutritious food; I was given just enough to not die.

These circumstances made me think about how I ended up in solitary confinement.

In the summer of 1990, shortly after finishing seventh grade, I was directed by a few older kids to commit a robbery. During the botched attempt, I shot a woman. She suffered serious injuries to her jaw and mouth but survived. It was reckless and foolish on my part, the act of a 13-year-old in crisis, and I’m simply grateful no one died.

For this I was arrested and charged as an adult with armed robbery and attempted murder.

My court-appointed lawyer advised me to plead guilty, telling me that the maximum sentence would be 15 years. So I did. But my sentence wasn’t 15 years — it was life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

I was thrown into solitary confinement the day I arrived at the Reception and Medical Center, a state prison in Lake Butler, Fla., because of my young age. Three weeks in, I was transferred to the general population of a different prison. But a year and a half later, at age 15, I was put back into solitary confinement after being written up for a few minor infractions.

I had no idea that I would be in isolation for the next 18 years.

Florida has different levels of solitary confinement; I spent the majority of that time in one of the most restrictive. Nearly two decades caged in a roughly 7-by-10-foot room passed before I was rotated between the general population area and solitary for six more years. I was finally released from prison in 2016 thanks to my lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, and the Equal Justice Initiative.

Researchers have long concluded that solitary confinement causes post-traumatic stress disorder and impairs prisoners’ ability to adjust to society long after they leave their cell. United Nations standards on the treatment of prisoners prohibits solitary confinement for more than 15 days, declaring it “cruel, inhuman or degrading.”

Yet the practice, even for minors, is still common in the United States, and efforts to end it have been spotty: In 2016, the Obama administration banned juvenile solitary confinement in federal prisons, and a handful of states have advanced similar reforms for both children and adults.

More aggressive change is needed in state prison systems. Today, dozens of states still have little to no legislation prohibiting juvenile solitary confinement. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

At one point in the essay, he writes:

It is difficult to know the exact number of children in solitary confinement today. The Liman Center at Yale Law School estimated that 61,000 Americans (adults and children) were in solitary confinement in the fall of 2017. A 2010 report from the Department of Justice notes that 24 percent of the country’s children detained at the time were subjected to solitary confinement.

More generally, according to a 2015 Department of Justice report, about 20 percent of the adult prison population has spent some time in solitary, with 4.4 percent of the population in solitary on any given day in 2011-12. And in Florida, where I was incarcerated, approximately 10,000 people — more than 10 percent of its prison population — are in solitary confinement each day.

No matter the count, I witnessed too many people lose their minds while isolated. They’d involuntarily cross a line and simply never return to sanity. Perhaps they didn’t want to. Staying in their mind was the better, safer, more humane option.

After spending nearly two years in solitary confinement as a teenager at Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime, Kalief Browder died by suicide at 22 years old. Others, like Carina Montes, 29, died by suicide during solitary — even while she was on suicide watch.

Solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment, something prohibited by the Eighth Amendment, yet prisons continue to practice it.

The US has much work to do to achieve its ideals.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2021 at 6:58 am

Bad blood and bad faith in the US Senate

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Written by LeisureGuy

25 March 2021 at 11:05 am

When lies come home to roost

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

Last night, federal prosecutors filed a motion revealing that a leader of the paramilitary group the Oath Keepers claimed to be coordinating with the Proud Boys and another far-right group before the January 6 insurrection.

After former President Donald Trump tweeted that his supporters should travel to Washington, D.C., on January 6 for a rally that “will be wild!,” Kelly Meggs, a member of the Oath Keepers, wrote on Facebook: “He wants us to make it WILD that’s what he’s saying. He called us all to the Capitol and wants us to make it wild!!! Sir Yes Sir!!! Gentlemen we are heading to DC pack your s***!!”

In a series of messages, Meggs went on to make plans with another individual for an attack on the process of counting the electoral votes. On December 25, Meggs told his correspondent that “Trumps staying in, he’s Gonna use the emergency broadcast system on cell phones to broadcast to the American people. Then he will claim the insurrection act…. Then wait for the 6th when we are all in DC to insurrection.”

The Big Lie, pushed hard by Trump and his supporters, was that Trump had won the 2020 election and it had been stolen by the Democrats. Although this was entirely discredited in more than 60 lawsuits, the Big Lie inspired Trump supporters to rally to defend their president and, they thought, their country.

The former president not only inspired them to fight for him; he urged them to send money to defend his election in the courts. A story today by Allan Smith of NBC News shows that as soon as Trump began to ask for funds to bankroll election challenges, supporters who later charged the Capitol began to send him their money. Smith’s investigation found that those who have been charged in the Capitol riot increased their political donations to Trump by about 75% after the election.

In the 19 days after the election, Trump and the Republican National Committee took in more than $207 million, prompted mostly by their claims of election fraud. John Horgan, who runs the Violent Extremism Research Group at Georgia State University, told Smith that “Trump successfully convinced many of his followers that unless they acted, and acted fast, their very way of life was about to come to an end…. He presented a catastrophic scenario whereby if the election was — for him — lost, his followers would suffer as a result. He made action not just imperative, but urgent, convincing his followers that they needed to do everything they could now, rather than later, to prevent the ‘enemy’ from claiming victory.”

And yet, on Monday, Trump’s former lawyer, Sidney Powell, moved to dismiss the Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit against her. Powell helped to craft the Big Lie, and won the president’s attention with her determination to combat the results of the election and restore Trump to the presidency. In January, Dominion sued Powell for $1.3 billion after her allegations that the company was part of an international Communist plot to steal the 2020 presidential election.

On Monday, Powell argued that “no reasonable person would conclude” that her statements about a scheme to rig the election “were truly statements of fact.” Eric Wilson, a Republican political technologist, explained away the Big Lie to NBC News’s Smith: “[T]here are a lot of dumb people in the world…. And a lot of them stormed the Capitol on January 6th.”

And yet, 147 Republicans—8 senators and 139 representatives—signed onto the Big Lie, voting to sustain objections to the counting of the electoral votes on January 6.

So the Republicans are left with increasing evidence that there was a concerted plan to attack the Capitol on January 6, fed by the former president, whose political campaign pocketed serious cash from his declarations that he had truly won the election and that all patriots would turn out to defend his reelection. Those claims were pressed by a lawyer who now claims that no reasonable person would believe she was telling the truth.

The Republicans tied themselves to this mess, and it is coming back to haunt them. President Biden’s poll numbers are high, with a Reuters/Ipsos poll released last Friday showing that 59% of adults approve of Biden’s overall performance. (Remember that Trump never broke 50%). They are happy with his response to the coronavirus pandemic and his handling of the economy.

Rather than trying to pass popular measures to make up the ground they have lost, Republicans are trying to suppress voting. By mid-February, in 43 states, Republicans had introduced 253 bills to restrict voting. Today, Republicans in Michigan introduced 39 more such bills. In at least 8 states, Republicans are trying to gain control over elections, taking power from nonpartisan election boards, secretaries of state, and governors. Had their systems been in place in 2020, Republicans could have overturned the will of the voters.

To stop these state laws, Democrats are trying to pass a sweeping federal voting rights bill, the For the People Act, which would protect voting, make it easier to vote, end gerrymandering, and get dark money out of politics. The bill has already passed the House, but Republicans in the Senate are fighting it with all they’ve got.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told them: “This . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 March 2021 at 9:06 pm

America’s gun problem, explained

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German Lopez has a Vox explainer about the US gun problem. It begins with a (somewhat dated) Youtube video from 5 years ago:

Lopez then dives in, and the entire article is worth reading. It begins (and it includes some good charts):

On Monday, it happened again: a mass shooting in America. This time, a gunman killed 10 people at a Boulder, Colorado, grocery store.

Already, the shootings have led to demands for action. “Now is the time!” the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence tweeted.

But if this plays out like the aftermath of past mass shootings, from Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 to Las Vegas in 2017, the chances of Congress taking major action on guns is very low.

This has become an American routine: After every mass shooting, the debate over guns and gun violence starts up once again. Maybe some bills get introduced. Critics respond with concerns that the government is trying to take away their guns. The debate stalls. So even as America continues to experience levels of gun violence unrivaled in the rest of the developed world, nothing happens — no laws are passed by Congress, nothing significant is done to try to prevent the next horror.

So why is it that for all the outrage and mourning with every mass shooting, nothing seems to change? To understand that, it’s important to grasp not just the stunning statistics about gun ownership and gun violence in the United States, but also America’s unique relationship with guns — unlike that of any other developed country — and how it plays out in our politics to ensure, seemingly against all odds, that our culture and laws continue to drive the routine gun violence that marks American life.

1) America’s gun problem is unique

No other developed country in the world has anywhere near the same rate of gun violence as America. The US has nearly six times the gun homicide rate of Canada, more than seven times the rate of Sweden, and nearly 16 times that of Germany, according to 2012 United Nations data compiled by the Guardian. (These gun deaths are a big reason America has a much higher overall homicide rate, which includes non-gun deaths, than other developed nations.)

To understand why that is, there’s another important statistic: The US has by far the highest number of privately owned guns in the world. Estimated for 2017, the number of civilian-owned firearms in the US was 120.5 guns per 100 residents, meaning there were more firearms than people. The world’s second-ranked country was Yemen, a quasi-failed state torn by civil war, where there were 52.8 guns per 100 residents, according to an analysis from the 2018 Small Arms Survey.

Another way of looking at that: Americans make up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet they own roughly 45 percent of all the world’s privately held firearms.

That does not, however, mean that every American adult actually owns guns. In fact, gun ownership is concentrated among a minority of the US population, as surveys from the Pew Research Center and General Social Survey suggest.

These three basic facts demonstrate America’s unique gun culture. There is a very strong correlation between gun ownership and gun violence — a relationship that researchers argue is at least partly causal. And American gun ownership is beyond anything else in the world. At the same time, these guns are concentrated among a passionate minority, who are typically the loudest critics against any form of gun control and who scare legislators into voting against such measures.

2) More guns mean more gun deaths

The research on this is overwhelmingly clear: No matter how you look at the data, more guns mean more gun deaths.

This is apparent when you look at state-by-state data for gun ownership and gun deaths (including homicides and suicides) within the United States, as this 2013 chart from Mother Jones demonstrates.

And it’s clear when you look at the data for gun ownership and gun deaths (including homicides and suicides) across developed nations. Data compiled in 2018 from GunPolicy.org shows the United States is an extreme outlier in both categories. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and the above extract does not include the (highly illuminating) charts that accompany the text. Just one of the charts is shown below.

The problem is the US Senate. The House has passed measures that would help — for example, better background check protocols — but the Senate will not act.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 March 2021 at 12:06 pm

Death by gentrification: the killing that shamed San Francisco

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Rebecca Solnit writes in the Guardian:

On 4 March, on what would have been his 30th birthday, Alejandro Nieto’s parents left a packed courtroom in San Francisco, shortly before pictures from their son’s autopsy were shown to a jury. The photographs showed what happens when 14 bullets rip through a person’s head and body. Refugio and Elvira Nieto spent much of the rest of the day sitting on a bench in the windowless hall of the federal building where their civil lawsuit for their son’s wrongful death was being heard.

Alex Nieto was 28 years old when he was killed, in the neighbourhood where he had spent his whole life. He died in a barrage of bullets fired at him by four San Francisco policemen. There are a few things about his death that everyone agrees on: he was in a hilltop park eating a burrito and tortilla chips, wearing the Taser he carried for his job as a bouncer at a nightclub, when someone called 911 on him a little after 7pm on the evening of 21 March 2014. When police officers arrived a few minutes later, they claim Nieto defiantly pointed the Taser at them, and that they mistook its red laser light for the laser sights of a gun, and shot him in self defence. However, the stories of the four officers contradict each other, and some of the evidence.

On the road that curves around the green hilltop of Bernal Heights Park there is an unofficial memorial to Nieto. People walking dogs or running or taking a stroll stop to read the banner, which is pinned by stones to the slope of the hill and surrounded by fresh and artificial flowers. Alex’s father Refugio still visits the memorial at least once a day, walking up from his small apartment on the south side of Bernal Hill. Alex Nieto had been walking on the hill since he was a child: that evening his parents, joined by friends and supporters, went up there in the dark to bring a birthday cake up to the memorial.

Refugio and Elvira Nieto are reserved people, straight-backed but careworn, who speak eloquently in Spanish and hardly at all in English. They had known each other as poor children in a little town in central Mexico and emigrated separately to the Bay Area in the 1970s, where they met again and married in 1984. They have lived in the same building on the south slope of Bernal Hill ever since. She worked for decades as a housekeeper in San Francisco’s downtown hotels and is now retired. He had worked on the side, but mostly stayed at home as the principal caregiver of Alex and his younger brother Hector. In the courtroom, Hector, handsome, sombre, with glossy black hair pulled back neatly, sat with his parents most days, not far from the three white and one Asian policemen who killed his brother. That there was a trial at all was a triumph. The city had withheld from family and supporters the full autopsy report and the names of the officers who shot Nieto, and it was months before the key witness overcame his fear of the police to come forward.

Nieto died because a series of white men saw him as a menacing intruder in the place he had spent his whole life. They thought he was possibly a gang member because he was wearing a red jacket. Many Latino boys and men in San Francisco avoid wearing red and blue because they are the colours of two gangs, the Norteños and Sureños – but the colours of San Francisco’s football team, the 49ers, are red and gold. Wearing a 49ers jacket in San Francisco is as ordinary as wearing a Saints jersey in New Orleans. That evening, Nieto, who had thick black eyebrows and a closely cropped goatee, was wearing a new-looking 49ers jacket, a black 49ers cap, a white T-shirt, black trousers, and carried the Taser in a holster on his belt, under his jacket. (Tasers shoot out wires that deliver an electrical shock, briefly paralysing their target; they are shaped roughly like a gun, but more bulbous; Nieto’s had bright yellow markings over much of its surface and a 15-foot range.)

Nieto had first been licensed by the state as a security guard in 2007 and had worked in that field since. He had never been arrested and had no police record, an achievement in a neighbourhood where Latino kids can get picked up just for hanging out. He was a Buddhist: a Latino son of immigrants who practised Buddhism is the kind of hybrid San Francisco used to be good at. As a teen he had worked as a youth counsellor for almost five years at the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center; he was outgoing and participated in political campaigns, street fairs and community events.

He had graduated from community college with a focus on criminal justice, and hoped to help young people as a probation officer. He had an internship with the city’s juvenile probation department not long before his death, according to former city probation officer Carlos Gonzalez, who became a friend. Gonzalez said Nieto knew how criminal justice worked in the city. No one has ever provided a convincing motive for why he would point a gun-shaped object at the police when he knew that it would probably be a fatal act.

n the evening of 21 March 2014, Evan Snow, a thirtysomething “user experience design professional”, according to his LinkedIn profile, who had moved to the neighbourhood about six months earlier (and who has since departed for a more suburban environment), took his young Siberian husky for a walk on Bernal Hill.

As Snow was leaving the park, Nieto was coming up one of the little dirt trails that leads to the park’s ring road, eating chips. In a deposition prior to the trial, Snow said that with his knowledge of the attire of gang members, he “put Nieto in that category of people that I would not mess around with”.

His dog put Nieto in the category of people carrying food, and went after him. Snow never seemed to recognise that his out-of-control dog was the aggressor: “So Luna was, I think, looking to move around the benches or behind me to run up happily to get a chip from Mr Nieto. Mr Nieto became further – what’s the right word? – distressed, moving very quickly and rapidly left to right, trying to keep his chips away from Luna. He ran down to these benches and jumped up on the benches, my dog following. She was at that point vocalising, barking, or kind of howling.”

The dog had Nieto cornered on the bench while its inattentive owner was 40 feet away – in his deposition for the case, under oath, his exact words were that he was distracted by a female “jogger’s butt”. “I can imagine that somebody would – could assume the dog was being aggressive at that point,” Snow said. The dog did not come when he called, but kept barking. Nieto, Snow says, then pulled back his jacket and took his Taser out, briefly pointing at the distant dog-owner before he pointed it at the dog baying at his feet. The two men yelled at each other, and Snow apparently used a racial slur, but would not later give the precise word. As he left the park, he texted a friend about the incident. His text, according to his testimony, said, “in another state like Florida, I would have been justified in shooting Mr Nieto that night” – a reference to that state’s infamous “stand your ground” law, which removes the obligation to retreat before using force in self-defence. In other words, he apparently wished he could have done what George Zimmerman did to Trayvon Martin: execute him without consequences.

Soon after, a couple passed by Nieto. Tim Isgitt, a recent arrival in the area, is the communications director of a nonprofit organisation founded by tech billionaires. He now lives in suburban Marin County, as does his partner Justin Fritz, a self-described “email marketing manager” who had lived in San Francisco about a year. In a picture one of them posted on social media, they are chestnut-haired, clean-cut white men posing with their dogs, a springer spaniel and an old bulldog. They were walking those dogs when they passed Nieto at a distance.

Fritz did not notice anything unusual but Isgitt saw Nieto moving “nervously” and putting his hand on the Taser in its holster. Snow was gone, so Isgitt had no idea that Nieto had just had an ugly altercation and had reason to be disturbed. Isgitt began telling people he encountered to avoid the area. (One witness who did see Nieto shortly after Isgitt and Fritz, longtime Bernal Heights resident Robin Bullard who was walking his own dog in the park, testified that there was nothing alarming about him. “He was just sitting there,” Bullard said.)

At the trial, Fritz testified that he had not seen anything alarming about Nieto. He said that he called 911 because Isgitt urged him to. At about 7.11pm he began talking to the 911 dispatcher, telling her that there was a man with a black handgun. What race, asked the dispatcher, “black, Hispanic?” “Hispanic,” replied Fritz. Later, the dispatcher asked him if the man in question was doing “anything violent”, and Fritz answered, “just pacing, it looks like he might be eating chips or sunflowers, but he’s resting a hand kind of on the gun”. Alex Nieto had about five more minutes to live.


.
San Francisco was never anti-newcomer: until recently, it had always been a place where new people arrived to reinvent themselves. When they arrive in a trickle, they integrate and contribute to the ongoing transformation. When they arrive in a flood, as they have during economic booms since the 19th-century gold rush, including the dotcom surge of the late 1990s and the current tech tsunami, they scour out what was there before. By 2012 the incursion of tech workers had gone from steady stream to deluge, and more and more people and institutions – bookstores, churches, social services, bars, small businesses – began to be evicted.

San Francisco had been a place where some people came out of idealism or stayed to realize an ideal: to work for social justice or teach the disabled, to write poetry or practise alternative medicine – to be part of something larger than themselves that was not a corporation, to live for something more than money. That was becoming less and less possible as rent and sale prices for homes spiralled upward. What the old-timers were afraid of losing, many of the newcomers seemed unable to recognise. The tech culture seemed in small and large ways to be a culture of disconnection and withdrawal. And it was very white, very male and pretty young, which is why I started to call my hometown “Fratistan”. (As of 2014, Google’s Silicon Valley employees, for example, were 2% black, 3% Latino, and 70% male.)

Tech companies created billionaires whose influence warped local politics, pushing for policies that served the new industry and their employees at the expense of the rest of the population. None of the money sloshing around the city trickled down to preserve the centre for homeless youth that closed in 2013, or the oldest black-owned black-focused bookstore in the country, which closed in 2014, or San Francisco’s last lesbian bar, which folded in 2015, or the African Orthodox Church of St John Coltrane, which is now facing eviction from the home it found after an earlier eviction during the late-1990s dotcom boom. Resentments rose. And cultures clashed. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. The US is a dangerous place for many of its citizens. Rather than protecting them, the police attack them.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 March 2021 at 6:05 pm

How Biden Can Clean Up Obama’s Big Tech Mess

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Matt Stoller writes in BIG:

Last week, documents leaked showing that the Obama administration nearly brought antitrust charges against Google in 2012. I’m going to write about why they didn’t, the damage that decision caused, and why Biden will forge a different path.

Also in this column are short pieces on:

  • How Gmail Quietly Controls a Vital Channel for Political Speech
  • The Slow Collapse of Corporate Republicans
  • The Monopoly Behind the Nuclear Weapons Lobby
  • The Coming Merger Boom
  • Why Golf Clubs Are Getting Worse

Before the main event, some house-keeping. I have a piece in the New York Times on the Arizona state legislative fight against the app store monopolies of Google and Apple. Also, I was recently on Marketplace to talk about Google. Finally, reporter Alec McGillis has an important book out on Amazon and the tearing apart of American society. It’s called Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America, and I’ll be writing more about it shortly.

And now…

Bad Search Engine Results Kill People

Americans expect Google to deliver the most relevant and best results for any particular query. But Google has an edge case problem. When an unsophisticated or desperate user really needs information about something important, and marketers are trying to lie or defraud the user, Google may deliver results that are not only bad, but actively harmful.

For instance, in 2017, reporters Cat Ferguson and Dave Dayen showed that Google’s poor search results had become a useful tool for con artists trying to entice addicts and alcoholics to sham rehab facilities. Google’s marketing tools often worked, helping shoddy treatment center firms cheat addicts, some of whom no doubt relapsed.

Offering poor quality rehab facilities is wrong, and Google didn’t cheat the addicts directly. But what made this line of business profitable was among other things the easy access to customers enabled by using Google. Indeed, as Ferguson noted, these companies were “united by their dependence on Google.” Embarrassed by the publicity, Google eventually made some effort at addressing the problem, but never really figured out how to stop con artists from using its service to harm these desperate people.

Similarly, in 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported on millions of fake listings on Google Maps, which con artists used to cheat customers and blackmail honest small businesses. Users were screwed. But for businesses, the only recourse was to spend more ad money on Google; complaining got you nowhere, or worse. Said one businessman, “It’s less harmful to piss off the government than piss off Google. The government will hit me with a fine. But if Google suspends my listings, I’m out of a job. Google could make me homeless.”

In other words, while generally speaking you will get good results from Google, in edge cases you may get results that are extremely harmful, like a repairman who cheats you, a bad doctor, or someone who wants to steal your money in the guise of helping you recover from addiction. Since most people expect to get credible results from Google, it’s a form of mass deception. And those who rely on Google to convey information to customers, like small businesses, are often on a knife’s edge, existing at the whim of a search monopolist that does not notice them.

These quality problems are a result of Google’s monopoly; poor quality is a classic symptom of monopoly power. How Google seems to offer good results on the whole, but sometimes undermines quality at the edges, is a somewhat subtle story.

Why Does Google Help Kill Addicts Seeking Recovery Services?

Google’s main search engine is what is called a ‘general search engine,’ meaning it provides general results based on indexing most of the web.

There are other types of search engines. Yelp and Expedia, for instance, are known as ‘vertical search engines’ who focus on a much narrower topic, like local businesses and travel. You can’t ask Yelp generalized questions about research or culture, but it is likely better (though not perfect) at removing local restaurant listing spam than Google, because that is its entire business.

Of course Google isn’t just a general search engine. It has vertical search lines of business as well. It competes with Yelp, Expedia, etc, listing restaurants, health providers, travel information, etc, and has user reviews. But the incentives are different for Google. If Google Maps stopped listing every restaurant in New York City, the lost revenue literally wouldn’t show up on Google’s income statement. Yelp, however, would see it as a crisis for its business.

The CEO of Yelp no doubt spends a lot more time thinking about removing fake listings of restaurants than Google CEO Sundar Pichai, just because Pichai has nine products with more than a billion users. Maybe Google is better at building stuff than most companies, but it’s not so much better that its executives can spend no time on a search problem and, all things being equal, still outperform a specialized search vertical. In other words, the reason Google isn’t very good at finding the right health care provider or local business is because that’s not really what its executives think about.

All of this is a way of saying that vertical search engines are sometimes better at finding certain kinds of information than Google. In its original form, from 1998-2007, Google helped blend the world of general and specialized search; it simply chose the best results, sending people to the right place on the web or to the right vertical search engines that had the best results. As Google co-founder Larry Page once put it, “We want to get you out of Google and to the right place as fast as possible.” People built businesses around an open web. Yelp was founded in 2004, back when you could still found firms adjacent to Google; Yelp got a lot of traffic from Google because it had the best local results.

But in 2007, Google stopped trying to send users to the most relevant place to answer their query, and started to try and keep people on Google properties. It began transforming itself from a general search engine into a walled garden, and it arranged its business strategy to exclude competitors, both vertical and general search, from the market, especially as people started to use their mobile phones to find things. At first this change was subtle, but Google gradually expanded its walled garden, encompassing more and more content. In doing so, it directed ad revenue to itself, eventually strangling not only vertical search competitors, but also publishers, online video and mapping competitors, and advertising technology firms.

Today, Google is the key gatekeeper to the web for users and advertisers, and venture capitalists will not invest in firms adjacent to it. Google’s dominance is also why the web in 2021 is increasingly a mess, a place for scam artists and disinformation. Today, if there were a vibrant competitive market for search, this rehab clinic fiasco might not be a problem; a health-based vertical search engine might be able to solve the problem that Google cannot. But in Google’s walled garden internet, that’s no longer a possibility. And as there really is no distinction between the web and the offline world, Google’s absentee landlord relationship to problems involving credible information is one reason scam artists and disinformation are proliferating globally.

It didn’t have to be this way. And in fact, in 2012, the Federal Trade Commission, which is our antitrust enforcer, nearly filed a case that would have stopped Google from corrupting our information commons.

Fumbling the Future

And this brings me to Leah Nylen’s story last week titled “How Washington Fumbled the Future”, looking back on the Obama administration’s policy vis-a-vis Google. She got her hands on a series of allegations the FTC had in 2012, in documents kept secret for nearly a decade. Recently, there have been multiple antitrust suits launched against Google, two by states and one at the Federal level. What is astonishing is how the FTC in 2012 had the evidence to bring most of the suits in court today.

Those of us who follow this area didn’t think that the 2012 FTC documents would be that interesting. The vote to close the Google investigation was unanimous, 5-0, with both Republican and Democratic commissioners letting Google skate. We figured that the FTC just didn’t see the problem clearly, as technology markets tend to morph quickly. Back in 2011 when the investigation started, who would have imagined that Google would become this powerful and dominant?

And yet, it turns out that the FTC had evidence of Google’s behavior, and just chose not to act. Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman called these released documents a “smoking gun” showing how “Google methodically destroyed the web.” Stoppelman competes with Google, but other more neutral observers agree with him. William Kovacic, a Republican ex-FTC member, said, “I always assumed the staff memo was not so specific, direct and clear about the path ahead. A lot of the DOJ case is in there. It’s really breathtaking.” Kovacic, who voted to open an investigation in 2011, left the FTC before the complaint came up for a vote, so he hadn’t read it until this week.

These documents revealed many things, one of which was . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 March 2021 at 10:59 am

The Coal Plant Next Door

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Max Blau reports in ProPublica for Georgia Health News:

Mark Berry raised his right hand, pledging to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The bespectacled mechanical engineer took his seat inside the cherry-wood witness stand. He pulled his microphone close to his yellow bow tie and glanced left toward five of Georgia’s most influential elected officials. As one of Georgia Power’s top environmental lobbyists, Berry had a clear mission on that rainy day in April 2019: Convince those five energy regulators that the company’s customers should foot the bill for one of the most expensive toxic waste cleanup efforts in state history.

When Berry became Georgia Power’s vice president of environmental affairs in 2015, he inherited responsibility for a dark corporate legacy dating back to before he was born. For many decades, power companies had burnt billions of tons of coal, dumping the leftover ash — loaded with toxic contaminants — into human-made “ponds” larger than many lakes. But after a pair of coal-ash pond disasters in Tennessee and North Carolina exposed the environmental and health risks of those largely unregulated dumps, the Obama administration required power companies to stop using the aging disposal sites.

Berry had spent nearly two decades climbing the ranks of Southern Company, America’s second-largest energy provider and the owner of Georgia Power. By the time he was under oath that day, company execs had vowed to store newly burnt coal ash in landfills designed for safely disposing of such waste. But an unprecedented challenge remained: Figuring out what to do with 90 million tons of coal ash — enough to fill more than 50 Major League Baseball stadiums to the brim — that had accumulated over the better part of a century in ash ponds that were now leaking.

Georgia Power would have to shut down roughly 30 ponds from the Appalachian foothills to the wetlands near the Georgia coast. After draining all the ponds, the company would have two options for disposing of the highly contaminated dry ash left behind: It could either move the ash into a landfill fitted with a protective liner, or pack the dry ash into a smaller footprint and place a cover on top — leaving a gaping hole in the ground that, in some places, would be the larger than Disneyland. The former would cost more but vastly reduce the possibility of toxic leakage; the latter lowered expenses but would perpetually risk contaminating drinking water in neighboring communities.

As scientists had grown more aware of the threat posed by coal ash, Southern states like Virginia and North Carolina had forced utilities to move ash into lined landfills. But Georgia was something of an outlier. The state historically was known as a coal ash capital, a place where lawmakers touted their pro-business bona fides by denouncing regulations, and Georgia Power had a track record of delaying or blocking efforts to regulate pollution. The company was lobbying hard for the cheaper option.

Of course, the $7.3 billion price tag wasn’t all that cheap. Sitting on the Georgia Public Service Commission’s witness stand, Berry and his top deputy spent hours arguing that the whopping costs of cleaning up Georgia Power’s coal-ash ponds should be passed along to its customers. If Berry could persuade the regulators that the costs were both “reasonable” and “prudent,” the company could tack a monthly fee onto the bills of 2.2 million residential customers for decades to come, which would work out to each customer footing $3,300 of the bill to clean up the company’s mess. If he failed, the commissioners could effectively force Georgia Power to eat those costs — a major blow to investors in a publicly traded company that has annual operating revenues of over $8 billion.

During Berry’s testimony, PSC commissioner Tim Echols said he has concerns about putting ratepayers on the hook for the costs of cleaning up the ash ponds — and whether Georgia Power is spending more than it has to. “This is enormously expensive,” he said.

Berry didn’t mention that the cleanup costs could increase by billions of dollars if Georgia’s environmental officials adopted the safer standards used by neighboring states. Anticipating Echols’ next question, Berry said that Georgia Power’s $7.3 billion plan was the “most cost-effective way” to comply with coal-ash regulations.

“If we were to do something less,” Berry added, state environmental officials “would force us to go back and redo what we did not do right the first time.”

Had those five energy regulators swiveling in their chairs asked more pointed questions about Georgia Power’s waste-disposal practices, Berry would have been pressured to tell a long-hidden story about ash and avarice. In the second half of the 20th century, Georgia Power had saved money by building some of America’s largest coal-ash ponds without a protective liner underneath, despite knowing some of the risks of contaminating residents’ drinking water. It had also sought to do as little as possible to protect drinking water that’s now believed to be tainted by coal-ash toxins.

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 March 2021 at 9:45 am

More about discrimination against Asians: Some recent history

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

On Tuesday, in Georgia, a gunman murdered 1 man and 7 women, at three spas, and wounded another man. All three of the businesses were operating legally, according to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, and had not previously come to the attention of the Atlanta Police Department, although all three had been reviewed by an erotic review site. The man apprehended for the murders was 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, who is described as deeply religious. Six of the women killed were of Asian descent.

Yesterday, at the news conference about the killings, the sheriff’s captain who was acting as a spokesman about the case, Jay Baker, told reporters that Long was “pretty much fed up and kind of at the end of his rope. Yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did.” The spokesman went on to say that the suspect “apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction,” that had spurred him to murder, and that it was too early to tell if the incident was a “hate crime.” Long told law enforcement officers that the murders were “not racially motivated.” He was, he said, trying to “help” other people with sex addictions.

Journalists quickly discovered that Baker had posted on Facebook a picture of a shirt calling COVID-19 an “IMPORTED VIRUS FROM CHY-NA.”

As Baker’s Facebook post indicated, the short-term history behind the shooting is the former president’s attacks on China, in which he drew out the pronunciation of the name to make it sound like a schoolyard insult.

The story behind Trump’s attacks on China was his desperate determination to be reelected in 2020. In 2018, the former president placed tariffs on Chinese goods to illustrate his commitment to make the U.S. “a much stronger, much richer nation.” The tariffs led to a trade war with China and, rather than building a much stronger nation, resulted in a dramatic fall in agricultural exports. Agricultural exports to China fell from $15.8 billion in 2017 to $5.9 billion in 2018.

To combat the growing unrest in the agricultural regions of the country, where farm bankruptcies grew by nearly 20% in 2019, Trump paid off farmers hurt by the tariff with subsidies, which made up more than one third of U.S. farm income in 2020. In June 2019, he also begged Chinese President Xi Jinping to help him win the 2020 election. He told him that farmers were important to his election prospects, and begged Xi to buy more soybeans and wheat from U.S. farmers.

In January 2020, Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He signed a deal that cut some U.S. tariffs in exchange for Chinese promises to buy more agricultural products, as well as some other adjustments between the two countries. On January 22, Trump tweeted: ““One of the many great things about our just signed giant Trade Deal with China is that it will bring both the USA & China closer together in so many other ways. Terrific working with President Xi, a man who truly loves his country. Much more to come!”

But, of course, the novel coronavirus was beginning to ravage the world.

On January 24, Trump tweeted: “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”

Five days later, at a signing ceremony, he said: “I think our relationship with China now might be the best it’s been in a long, long time.”

On February 7, Trump called journalist Bob Woodward and said of the coronavirus, “This is deadly stuff. You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed…. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flu.” Still, on February 10, he told supporters in New Hampshire that the coronavirus would “miraculously” go away when the weather got warmer, and in mid-February, he defended Xi’s handling of the epidemic, saying China was working hard and “doing a very good job” and that they “have everything under control.”

Shortly after the U.S. shut down to combat the pandemic in mid-March, Trump began to turn on China. On March 22, after 33,000 Americans had tested positive for the virus and 421 had died of it, Trump seemed to think better of his praise for Xi. He insisted that China had not told him about the deadly nature of the virus, and began to call it the “Chinese virus,” or the “Chy-na virus.”

By April 17, a Republican strategy document urged candidates to deflect attention from the nation’s disastrous coronavirus news by attacking China, which “caused this pandemic by covering it up, lying, and hoarding the world’s supply of medical equipment…. China… has stolen millions of American jobs, [and] sent fentanyl to the United States.” Democrats would not stand up to China, the document told Republican candidates to say, but “I will stand up to China, bring our manufacturing jobs back home, and push for sanctions on China for its role in spreading this pandemic.”

In May, Trump announced the U.S. would leave the World Health Organization because it had been too easy on China in the early days of the pandemic.

To undercut his own association with China, Trump somewhat nonsensically tried to link his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, to China. He claimed—falsely—that China had paid Biden’s son, Hunter, $1.5 billion. He and his appointees Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, Attorney General William Barr, and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, all claimed—again falsely– that China was interfering in the election to help Biden.

This week, the intelligence community reported that, in fact, China did not try to influence the election because it did not “view either election outcome as being advantageous enough for China to risk getting caught meddling.”

As Trump politicized the pandemic and attacked China, hate crimes against Asian-Americans began to rise; there were about 3800 of them between March 19, 2020 and February 28, 2021. In cities, hate incidents increased by 150%.

In this context, the suggestion of a police spokesman who had posted pictures celebrating a shirt that called Covid-19 the “VIRUS IMPORTED FROM CHY-NA” that a gunman had killed six women of Asian descent because he had had “a really bad day,” along with the officer’s apparent acceptance of Long’s statement that the killings were not racially motivated, outraged observers.

That seemingly cavalier dismissal of the dead while  . . .

Continue reading. And do read the rest — it’s good to know (or to refresh one’s memory).

Written by LeisureGuy

19 March 2021 at 4:32 pm

Don’t Discount Evangelicalism as a Factor in Racist Murder of Asian Spa Workers in Georgia

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An article in Religion Dispatches is worth reading:

Today, America is still reeling from the news of the mass murder of eight people at massage parlors in Georgia. Many are rightly calling the shooting spree an act of white supremacist terrorism, as the victims targeted were Asian women. The moment I read that the man who confessed to the murders was the son of a youth pastor who told police he had a “sex addiction,” however, it struck me that we must not ignore the specifically evangelical Protestant contours of this story.

I want to be clear. As Joshua Grubbs, an assistant professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University who has published research on religion and attitudes toward sex told RD, “Sex addiction is simply not a credible defense for mass murder.” One of the most significant conclusions Grubbs’ research points to, however, is that conservative Christian men are prone to believe that they have pornography or sex “addictions,” even when they do not. Before he was apprehended by police, Robert Aaron Long was reportedly on his way to target the porn industry in Florida for violence similar to what he perpetrated in Georgia.

According to Grubbs, “There’s a large and growing body of research that shows that conservative religious values are strongly linked to feelings of sex addiction. We find that men in particular are likely to interpret normal sexual urges as pathological and then act on them in ways that they find to be problematic.” As Grubbs told me in a previous interview, while some people do exhibit compulsive and dysregulated behavior with respect to pornography, “There are also quite a number of people who report feeling out of control even with minimal use.”

If Long is telling the truth about his desire to “eliminate” the “temptations”—that is, women—that he claims exacerbated his “sex addiction,” it’s likely that he learned to think of himself this way, and to objectify women, in church. In evangelical institutional environments such as churches and Christian schools, discussions of sex are usually steeped in purity culture, that is a complex of beliefs and practices associated with an unhealthy fear of sexuality and intense pressure to remain “pure”—that is, sexually inexperienced—before marriage. I am among the many ex-evangelicals who were essentially coerced into signing “purity pledges” in the 1990s, which is just one of the many manipulative practices associated with purity culture.

According to Grubbs, “Purity culture places heavy emphasis on temptation and evil. Pornography is considered evil and something to be eliminated. Given that framing, it’s not surprising that someone might view all sexual ‘temptations’ as evil and needing to be eliminated.” Speaking of Long, Grubbs elaborated, “I would not call this person a ‘victim’ of purity culture, but it is possible that he is a product of it.”

The flip side of more secular rape culture, purity culture teaches boys that they are “lust monsters” and girls that it’s their duty to protect their purity by being “modest.” In evangelical culture, youth pastors are among the primary purveyors of these messages, and thus key figures in socializing white evangelical youth in evangelicalism’s version of toxic masculinity. As a result, victims of child sex abuse and of sexual assault in evangelical communities are often blamed for “tempting” the perpetrators, while the latter, particularly if they’re white men with an important role in the church, are protected from what should be the full consequences of their crimes. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 March 2021 at 3:56 pm

“I Spent 25 Years Monitoring Domestic Terrorism for the U.S. Government — No One Listened”

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Daryl Johnson, one of the foremost experts on domestic extremist groups in the US who previously held a number of government positions, writes in /Newlines:

It seemed like I was the only one driving down Fourth Street, headed into the downtown area of Oklahoma City. The road led me to a vacant lot where the ruins of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building once stood. There was nothing to see, just a ruin of concrete, gravel, and dirt encompassed by a chain-link fence stretching around the entire block. At first, I thought it was a construction site. The remains of the building had already been demolished a week earlier and, to my surprise, all the rubble and debris had been cleaned up. It might have always been this way — vacant and soulless. Except everyone knew what happened on April 19, 1995.

As I exited my Honda Accord, crammed floor to ceiling with my college belongings, a slight breeze was kicking up dirt and pushing dead grass and trash across the weathered asphalt street. A large, warehouse-like building directly across from me was boarded up. I walked the sidewalk alone looking at the makeshift memorial to the victims: the 168 killed and 800 wounded by a 4,800-pound bomb hidden in a rental truck. The flowers, teddy bears, and handwritten notes were still tied to the fence, while candlelit vigils long since extinguished lay burnt on the sidewalk.

As I walked the grounds, I reflected on a few fateful moments in my young adulthood that seemed directly tied with my desire to travel on my own to the site of this deadly, American terrorist attack.

As a 17-year-old boy scout working on his Eagle rank merit badge requirements, I had to write a letter to an elected official discussing a relevant issue in my community. In October 1986, I wrote to then Sen. John Warner (R-Virginia) to warn him about the threat of domestic terrorism. I was influenced by recent events: the 1985 standoff between the FBI and an insular community of white supremacists called “The Covenant, The Sword, The Arm of the Lord”; the violent criminal activities of The Order, another white supremacist group operating in the Pacific Northwest; and the cult of Lyndon LaRouche, an extremist political figure who lived on a fortified compound in Loudon County, Virginia, near where I lived in Warrenton.

“Terrorist activity has increased in recent years,” I wrote to Warner. “With each passing week, we hear about more bombings, the hijackings of planes, the kidnappings of political figures. I, as an American citizen, begin to wonder how much longer will it take for terrorism to arrive here in the United States.”

At 19, I served as a missionary for the Mormon Church in southeastern Michigan, proselytizing in suburban and rural areas. The harsh winter climate, large swaths of wilderness, Great Lakes, industrial landscape, and cloistered demographics make Michigan inviting to survivalists, white supremacists, Black nationalists, and other extremists, a few of whom became interested in the Mormon faith. There was the homeowner who displayed an upside-down American flag and who wouldn’t shake my left hand because he believed it was “a communist handshake.” Another potential convert had a large painting of Hitler hung on the wall in her home. In time, I found the Book of Mormon had to compete with flyers from the Ku Klux Klan in the Detroit suburbs of Madison Heights, Warren, and Clawson.

So as I stood in downtown Oklahoma City, I couldn’t help but think of the Michigan background I shared with two of the perpetrators of this atrocity: Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. They were both enlisted men who were transitioning out of service — they were U.S. Army veterans who had served in the same unit during the Gulf War. Once committed to defending U.S. national security interests through their military service, they became enemies of the state, hellbent on undermining American society through an ideologically motivated act of mass violence. I’d run into guys like these before, individuals who shared their outlook, and had tried to reach them spiritually.

A few days after visiting the attack site, I arrived home in rural Virginia. My new job was as an Intelligence Research Specialist at the Army Counterintelligence Center (ACIC) at Fort Meade, Maryland, where I’d monitor threats to the U.S. military coming from within the continental United States, a program called CONUS force protection.

At the time, CONUS force protection was focused on a bygone era of far-left violence against the military in the 1970s and early 1980s by communist sympathizers and Puerto Rican nationalist groups like the FALN and Macheteros. There hadn’t been an attack by these groups on military personnel or facilities in the U.S. for over a decade. Many left-wing terrorist members were incarcerated, while a few remained fugitives, forgotten phantoms from an outdated, radical era.

And yet, the data told a different story. At the ACIC, I noticed that much of the law enforcement and open-source reporting involving threats to the military at home were linked to right-wing extremists, specifically militia members and white supremacists. Extremists had been arrested for stealing military weapons and equipment as well as plotting to attack the military, motivated by various conspiracy theories related to black government helicopters, the New World Order, and citizen detention camps, among other bogus claims. I raised the issue through my chain of command, which allowed me to begin careful, limited monitoring of these groups to assess the threat they posed to the Army. At the time, some questioned why I even bothered. By 1998, the emerging new threat to U.S. national security was Islamist extremism overseas, embodied by al Qaeda, which had begun bombing our embassies in Africa.

Yet the threat of homegrown, non-Islamist extremism persisted, as I discovered in 1999 when I joined the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. White supremacists, militia extremists, and others still violated federal firearms, arson, and explosives laws. There were intelligence threat concerns related to right-wing extremists plotting violence as the millennium approached, combined with the usual paranoid fears of Y2K and the cult hysteria about the year 2000 ushering in the end of the world. In fact, there were a couple of high-profile, ongoing criminal investigations related to militia extremists plotting attacks on critical infrastructure in California and Florida.

In 2000, I traveled to Cheyenne, Wyoming, to assist agents as they arrested two neo-Nazis for manufacturing dozens of improvised explosive devices and illegal firearms. Two years later, I helped with an investigation into a Ku Klux Klan faction in Benson, North Carolina, responsible for the murder of a fellow KKK member who they suspected of being an informant. The same faction was also being investigated for plotting to bomb a county courthouse and assassinate the local sheriff.

If monitoring domestic terrorism wasn’t a high priority before 9/11, after that event it became almost a coy relic of a distant past. Nevertheless, I continued to work for the U.S. government in the same capacity, joining an agency created expressly because of al Qaeda’s gruesome attack on U.S. soil. In 2004, I joined the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis as its only domestic terrorism analyst. Even flying solo, I found, there was plenty of work to do supporting projects related to critical infrastructure threats, developing talking points for DHS leadership, and writing strategic intelligence and policy reports. By year two, I finally had four contract analysts working alongside me, with plans in place to hire three more. I wanted this program to grow, but I also realized that I needed to be extremely judicious about the type of analysts that were hired due to the highly charged social and political issues encompassing domestic terrorism. Debates about gun rights, abortion, immigration, and taxation permeated the various far-right extremist movements. But they were also mainstays of the American conservative movement. Monitoring these issues within the right context, and with U.S. taxpayer money, was essential.

I was also caught in something halfway between boondoggle and PR exercise. My higher-ups at DHS viewed the work my team did as a tertiary responsibility and a potential political liability. Nevertheless, they also thought it gave DHS convenient political cover against any allegation of racial profiling of Muslims in the heightened post-9/11 security climate. Perhaps for that reason alone, I got what I asked for. When the contractors left, I was able to hire five staff analysts, some of whom had extensive backgrounds in monitoring and assessing domestic extremism gained from their work in civil rights organizations, other DHS agencies, as well as intelligence fusion centers. Even if this was the department’s nod to professional tokenism, it kept us vigilant against threats having nothing whatsoever to do with al Qaeda.

Less than a year after assembling this analytical team, I authored the 2009 DHS report on right-wing extremism meant for law enforcement only. It was subsequently leaked to the press and a political backlash ensued, the aftermath of which scuttled my unit’s work at DHS.

The Republican Party and conservative media were offended by the term “right-wing extremist” (a legitimate term used in the counterterrorism community and academia) and objected to a vague definition of it that they intentionally misconstrued, claiming it was an attack on conservatism, the GOP, and the newly formed Tea Party, a grassroots populist movement that coalesced in opposition to Barack Obama’s presidency and what it saw as the administration’s radical leftist agenda.

The American Legion, too, was angry that my findings raised the prospect of returning veterans becoming targets of recruitment by right-wing extremists. No one on the right wanted to hear that the U.S. threat environment was shifting from homegrown Muslim extremists aligned with al Qaeda to violent, right-wing extremists. As is customary with inconvenient intelligence, my work was politicized, and my team was dissolved.

Within a few weeks of the release of the 2009 DHS report, the first in a series of violent, right-wing terrorist attacks occurred. First, there was the killing of three police officers in Pittsburgh by a white supremacist, then the murder of an abortion doctor in Kansas. These attacks were soon followed by the fatal shootings of two sheriff’s deputies in Florida by a militia sympathizer and the fatal shooting of a guard at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The new wave of domestic terrorism I had predicted was upon us.

Now, more than a decade on, America has  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 March 2021 at 6:50 pm

Over 700 Complaints About NYPD Officers Abusing Black Lives Matter Protesters, Then Silence

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Eric Umansky writes in ProPublica:

It was one of the most brutal police responses to last year’s Black Lives Matter protests.

As hundreds of demonstrators were marching peacefully in the Bronx on the evening of June 4, New York Police Department officers blocked their way from in front and then behind, trapping the protesters in an ever-tightening space that footage shows ultimately spanned about three car-lengths.

Officers soon waded into the crowd, pepper-spraying, kicking, punching and swinging their batons. “People were being stampeded, they would try to get up and they’d get hit again,” recalled Conrad Blackburn, a criminal defense lawyer who was there as a legal observer. “People were bleeding from their heads, with cuts all over their bodies. People couldn’t breathe. They couldn’t see.”

About 60 protesters and bystanders were injured, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. Video footage the organization compiled captures the terror in people’s voices. “We’re being crushed!” one person screams. Another voice pleads, “Mommy!”

At the demonstration, overseeing the NYPD’s response, was the top uniformed officer, Chief of Department Terence Monahan.

A recent federal lawsuit by New York State Attorney General Letitia James says that Monahan “actively encouraged and participated in this unlawful behavior.” Other reports on the protests have also offered scathing criticisms of the NYPD’s response.

But one voice has been conspicuously quiet: The agency whose sole responsibility is to investigate NYPD abuse of civilians.

The New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board, or CCRB, received about 750 complaints of officers abusing Black Lives Matter protesters across the city last year. But it has not yet released any findings from investigations into those complaints.

The CCRB declined ProPublica’s request for an accounting of the status of its investigations. It won’t say how many investigations have been closed and how many are still open. Most critically, it won’t disclose how many officers have been charged with misconduct.

The NYPD also did not respond to ProPublica’s questions about any discipline stemming from abuse of protesters.

The lack of disclosure comes as New York City has moved toward more transparency in police discipline. A federal court recently cleared the way for the city to make NYPD officers’ disciplinary records public. Both the CCRB and NYPD have now published officers’ disciplinary records, though critics have noted the limitations of the databases.

Created nearly 70 years ago, originally as a part of the NYPD, the CCRB has long been cautious about crossing the department it is charged with investigating. It is currently overseen by a 15-member board, with members appointed by the mayor, city council, public advocate and police commissioner.

Internal CCRB communications about its investigations into the NYPD response to the protests give a glimpse of the dynamics involved: They show progress on the investigations has been slowed in part because of the NYPD’s recurrent lack of cooperation — which ProPublica has previously detailed — and the CCRB leadership’s own caution about confronting it.

In October, the then-deputy chief of the CCRB’s investigative unit, Dane Buchanan, emailed the agency’s executive director, Jonathan Darche, to say that investigators were “ready to schedule Chief Monahan for an interview.” Buchanan asked Darche whether he’d like to discuss it first “or should we just have an investigator reach out to his office to get his availability?”

Darche, who reports to the board, responded that he would handle it himself and raise it in a meeting with the NYPD the next day.

Buchanan continued to check in, but the issue went unresolved for months. Monahan was reportedly finally scheduled for an interview to be conducted last Friday, just after he had announced he was retiring from the NYPD after 39 years. The move means Monahan would no longer be subject to departmental discipline.

As Monahan said he was retiring, Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed him to help run New York’s COVID-19 response. At a press conference, de Blasio deflected a question about choosing an officer under investigation, saying, “I think the message this sends is that we’re moving the recovery forward.”

In a statement, the CCRB told ProPublica it was “not prepared to interview Chief Monahan in October” and that “it intends to release a report detailing the factors that complicated its investigations into the police response to last summer’s protests.” The CCRB said it will share the results of investigations once they are closed and once federal litigation, such as the attorney general’s suit, is over.

Emails show CCRB staffers had repeatedly raised red flags about the NYPD’s failure to produce evidence. “We continue to be plagued with false negatives in protest cases,” one staffer emailed in the fall, referring to instances where the NYPD claimed it had no body-worn camera footage of an incident only for the CCRB to later discover footage exists.

Another email cited an example where an officer mentioned in an interview she had activated her body cam during a confrontation with a protester. The NYPD had told the CCRB that no such footage existed.

“Allegations of us not providing BWC footage is false,” the NYPD said in a statement, referring to body-worn cameras. “We have spoken with senior executives at the CCRB who state they do not have any complaints and are pleased with the Departments response to providing BWC video.”

Other records were also matters of contention. “We are hitting a critical point with the protest case documents,” Buchanan wrote in October, referring to police records that could help the CCRB identify both officers and civilians. “Many of them have been outstanding for a long time.”

The CCRB did decide to go public about one roadblock. Officers had been refusing to do interviews by video, which the agency was using because of the pandemic. Hundreds of cases were stalled as a result. After the CCRB announced an emergency hearing about it in August, the NYPD ordered officers to participate in video interviews.

But . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 March 2021 at 5:02 pm

American Battlefield: 72 Hours in Kenosha

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Doug Bock Clark writes in GQ:

Kyle Rittenhouse was sprinting away from the scene of an apparent crime when he phoned a friend and choked out, “I just killed somebody. I had to shoot him.” Then he hung up. Men in masks were beginning to chase him. Rittenhouse kept running, his heavy cowboy boots clomping against the pavement, uncertain if he’d have to fire his gun again. He was 17, and for much of his life he’d toyed around with guns and dreamed of being a cop—of keeping order. That was what he’d been seeking to do last August when he carried an assault rifle into downtown Kenosha, Wisconsin, swaths of which had been razed during previous nights of rioting. That was what he’d been doing moments earlier, as midnight neared, when he’d confronted a group of vandals and arsonists wrecking a car dealership. He had been trying to get them to stop. One, with a red T-shirt wrapped around his head so that his eyes showed through a slit, had charged the teenager, and Rittenhouse had fled.

“Fuck you!” the man had yelled. Rittenhouse turned to face his pursuer. The man lunged, and Rittenhouse fired at point-blank range. Then he stood over the twitching body, his first aid bag dangling unused at his side. Even before bystanders began futilely trying to plug the dying man’s wounds with a T-shirt, Rittenhouse took off up Kenosha’s main drag.

Three blocks to the north, he could see a line of four armored police personnel carriers: safety, it seemed to him. Rittenhouse huffed along for a block and a half until he encountered a group of racial-justice protesters streaming south, drawn by his gunshots. At first, the throng didn’t pay much attention to the kid weaving through them: With his baby face and his backward American-flag baseball cap, he looked even younger than he was. But soon shouts relayed news of the shooting through the crowd. The barrel of the Smith & Wesson AR-15-style assault rifle he gripped was still hot.

“What’d he do?”

“He shot someone!”

“Get his ass!”

By the time Rittenhouse was within a block of reaching the police, roughly a dozen men were chasing him. One threw a right haymaker, knocking off the teenager’s baseball cap, before peeling away, perhaps intimidated by the rifle. Rittenhouse was a few steps ahead of the pack when he tripped. He slammed down on the asphalt and rolled onto his back, whipping his weapon toward his pursuers.

A tall Black man tried unsuccessfully to drop-kick him, then dashed onward. Rittenhouse seems to have fired twice as the man hurdled over him—and somehow missed, despite their proximity.

Then a white man in a dark sweatshirt, hood up, smashed Rittenhouse with a skateboard gripped in one hand as he tried to grab the rifle with the other. That time, Rittenhouse couldn’t miss—the muzzle of his gun was practically jabbed into the man’s belly. After the blast, the skateboarder staggered a few steps, clutching his chest, trying to keep his life from pouring out.

Now a tall white man loomed over Rittenhouse. His baseball cap read “PARAMEDIC.” In his right hand, he held a pistol. But Rittenhouse, with the bigger weapon, had the drop on him. The man backed up, hands in the air, the pistol’s muzzle pointing skyward. Abruptly the man stepped forward. Rittenhouse squeezed the trigger. The biceps of the arm holding the pistol exploded into gore. The handgun clattered to the street.

A fourth man was backing away, hands raised. Others were ducking behind trees and cars. The hooded skateboarder lay facedown in the street. The man whose arm had been blown open was kneeling nearby, shrieking for help.

As Rittenhouse stood, the lights of the police vehicles illuminated his face—red, white, and blue—and he hustled toward them. He had some minor cuts and scrapes, but he was essentially unhurt. He approached the hulking personnel carriers with his surgical-gloved hands held high and his rifle dangling from a military-style body sling. He wasn’t sure how many people he might have just killed. Certainly, one. Probably, more.

Though portions of the shootings had been captured on at least eight video recordings, Americans who dissected the footage in the coming days wouldn’t agree on what they saw—and the question of what had truly happened that night would become a point of bitter debate in a divided country. Many conservatives would lionize Rittenhouse as a hero, defending property and then himself against a mob. Many on the left would vilify him as a murderous white supremacist. The truth, however, was even more tragic than either side allowed.

This story draws on dozens of hours of video footage, including a comprehensive timeline of crucial events created by syncing 11 livestreams; countless photos; dozens of interviews, including some with participants speaking for the first time; previous reportage; and extensive police and court records. It is the most complete investigation and reconstruction yet of how American order imploded for three nights in Kenosha, until citizens were warring in the streets, and what that breakdown might tell us about the United States’ deepening divisions.

Two days before Kyle Rittenhouse fired his weapon of war, Kenosha police responded to a call from a woman reporting that the father of her children, Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was causing a disturbance at her home. When a white officer named Rusten Sheskey arrived, he saw Blake put a child into an SUV; the officer’s lawyer later said that Sheskey believed that the boy was being abducted. A warrant for third-degree felony sexual assault was out for Blake, stemming from allegations made by the same woman earlier that summer, and so Sheskey tried to arrest him. Within minutes, Blake, Sheskey, and two other officers were wrestling on the lawn as a crowd gathered. Videos captured Blake struggling free and limping around the front of the SUV. Sheskey followed a step behind, his service pistol aimed between Blake’s shoulder blades. As Blake opened the driver’s-side door, Sheskey grabbed a fistful of his white tank top. The fabric stretched as Blake leaned inside the vehicle, still facing away. Sheskey fired seven times. The vehicle’s horn blared unrelentingly as Blake’s body draped across the steering wheel. In the back seat, Blake’s three young children screamed.

According to the police, Sheskey fired his gun after seeing Blake twist toward him, short-bladed knife in hand. (Blake would later tell investigators that he was putting the knife away when Sheskey shot him.) The aggressive action that Sheskey alleges isn’t discernible on the videos, however, in which Blake is partly obscured by the car door. Indeed, what many people saw was a retreating Black man gunned in the back by a white police officer. “You did not have to shoot him, bro. He was getting in his fucking car,” a bystander who’d been filming the altercation shouted at Sheskey. “I’m posting this shit on Facebook.”

A few minutes later, that video popped onto the Facebook feed of Nick Dennis, a 37-year-old Black Kenoshan who lived nearby. He immediately drove to where Blake had been shot. Soon the normally quiet stretch of low-rent apartment buildings became crowded with locals chanting for justice. By evening, several hundred people, Black, white, and brown, surrounded police officers cordoning the crime scene, and some began challenging the officers to take off their badges, put down their guns, and fight.

Relations between Kenosha’s largely white police force and its minority residents had long been tense. “I think society has to come to a threshold where there’s some people that aren’t worth saving,” the region’s white sheriff had mused two years earlier, when four Black people accused of shoplifting were arrested following a high-speed car chase. “We need to build warehouses… and lock them away for the rest of their lives.” The sheriff later apologized for the comments, but residents like Dennis resented the police force for what they felt was a long history of abuse, especially officers shooting people in questionable circumstances without facing charges.

For most of Dennis’s life, he’d tried to avoid confronting the police. In his twenties, he’d racked up multiple charges for dealing marijuana. But after finishing 18 months in prison in 2013, he trained as a machinist, got a good job, and focused on his sons. He received only traffic violations from then on, and even if he felt like the stops were petty harassment, he endured them, believing that a tall and muscular Black man like himself was always one misinterpreted gesture away from having his life derailed. He felt powerless to challenge the system. But earlier that summer, the death of George Floyd beneath the knee of a white police officer, and the subsequent nationwide racial-justice protests, catalyzed a profound transformation in him. “I felt myself crying,” Dennis said of watching video of Floyd’s murder. “I hadn’t cried in years. I could only think if it was my sons.” That’s when Dennis began joining Black Lives Matter marches.

Now he’d come to the site of Blake’s shooting, hoping to join a peaceful demonstration. But as the evening dimmed into night, he watched as people pushed past flimsy police tape and men began jumping on the hood and windshield of a police cruiser. After one cop was knocked out by a thrown brick, the rest retreated, and Dennis marched with the crowd through residential neighborhoods toward police headquarters, chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” As the protesters neared the police station, they found the roads crammed with cars bearing still more protesters, some waving Black Lives Matter signs. Authorities had parked unmanned municipal garbage trucks sideways in the streets, creating a hasty barricade, but the masses overran them and made their way to the three-story station. Wearing a black face mask decorated with a fist raising its middle finger, Dennis recorded himself on his phone amid throngs of protesters, declaring, “We’re gonna turn this bitch up!”

In front of the police building, several dozen cops in riot gear, most of them white, formed a wall with shields and batons. At first the crowd only insulted them; then someone got to throwing small firecrackers. Soon people began to lob bigger incendiaries, which made explosions that sounded to Dennis like artillery fire, and the police retreated inside. He was furious, too, but wouldn’t participate in violence.

With the police bottled up, there was no one to check the crowd. It rampaged into the neighboring Civic Center, a square of neoclassical governmental edifices arranged around a tree-filled park, built before Kenosha’s once prosperous factories had been decimated by offshoring, and which now seemed grandiose for such a small, hardscrabble city. People busted windows at the courthouse. They tried to set the Register of Deeds building on fire. They tore down a statue of a dinosaur outside a natural history museum. It seems a young white man set the garbage truck barricades on fire with rolled towels soaked in gasoline.

Dennis livestreamed much of what was happening from his cell phone. As he saw it, he was confronting America with the wages of what the police had wrought, in their shooting of Blake. In immersing himself in the next three nights of chaos, he would regard himself as a witness and an activist. When he could, he tried to prevent illegal acts and keep others safe; he warned people away from the burning garbage trucks, afraid they might explode. But he realized that something more powerful than himself had been unleashed.

Videos showed hundreds of people of diverse ethnicities and ages packing the park. Though probably dozens of them engaged in vandalism and arson, most, like Dennis, were simply bearing witness; some were even cheering, seemingly celebrating. It wasn’t just fury at the shooting of a single man that fueled the destruction: It was

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 March 2021 at 1:54 pm

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