The Committee to Stop FBI Repression is a member group of the International League of Peoples' Struggle (ILPS).
“40 Years a Prisoner” viewing with ILPS
As part of Black History Month, ILPS US will be screening "40 Years a Prisoner", a documentary directed by Tommy Oliver that follows the life of Michael Africa, Jr. to exonerate his parents, both incarcerated members of the revolutionary group MOVE. The documentary is currently being shown on HBO and includes producers like Common, John Legend, Questlove and many others.
This special ILPS US viewing will be on
Tuesday, February 16
6pm EST / 5pm CST / 3pm PST.
The event will include welcoming and discussion with Michael Africa, Jr. himself!
Please register for the Zoom event at tinyurl.com/ILPS40Years
The MOVE 9, which includes Michael Africa Jr.'s parents Debbie Sims Africa and Mike Africa Sr., were in prison since August 8, 1978, following a massive police attack on their home in the Powelton Village neighborhood of Philadelphia. This was seven years before the government dropped a bomb on MOVE, killing 11 people, including 5 babies. Today, the only remaining member of MOVE in prison is Mumia Abu-Jamal.
MOVE, a member of ILPS US, surfaced in Philadelphia during the early 1970’s. Characterized by dreadlock hair, the adopted surname “Africa”, a principled unity, and a commitment to their belief, members practiced the teachings of MOVE founder John Africa.
Come learn more about MOVE and the struggle to free the MOVE 9 and all political prisoners!
Share widely and register today!
For any questions, please email: email@example.com
Pass COVID Protection and Debt Relief
Stop the Eviction Cliff!
Forgive Rent and Mortgage Debt!
Millions of Californians have been prevented from working and will not have the income to pay back rent or mortgage debts owed from this pandemic. For renters, on Feb 1st, landlords will be able to start evicting and a month later, they will be able to sue for unpaid rent. Urge your legislator and Gov Newsom to stop all evictions and forgive COVID debts!
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock our state, with over 500 people dying from this terrible disease every day. The pandemic is not only ravaging the health of poor, black and brown communities the hardest - it is also disrupting our ability to make ends meet and stay in our homes. Shockingly, homelessness is set to double in California by 2023 due the economic crisis unleashed by COVID-19. 
Housing is healthcare: Without shelter, our very lives are on the line. Until enough of us have been vaccinated, our best weapon against this virus will remain our ability to stay at home.
Will you join me by urging your state senator, assembly member and Governor Gavin Newsom to pass both prevent evictions AND forgive rent debt?
This click-to-call tool makes it simple and easy.
Renters and small landlords know that much more needs to be done to prevent this pandemic from becoming a catastrophic eviction crisis. So far, our elected officials at the state and local level have put together a patchwork of protections that have stopped a bad crisis from getting much worse. But many of these protections expire soon, putting millions of people in danger. We face a tidal wave of evictions unless we act before the end of January.
We can take action to keep families in their homes while guaranteeing relief for small landlords by supporting an extension of eviction protections (AB 15) and providing rent debt relief paired with assistance for struggling landlords (AB 16). Assembly Member David Chiu of San Francisco is leading the charge with these bills as vehicles to get the job done. Again, the needed elements are:
Improve and extend existing protections so that tenants who can’t pay the rent due to COVID-19 do not face eviction
Provide rent forgiveness to lay the groundwork for a just recovery
Help struggling small and non-profit landlords with financial support
Ten months since the country was plunged into its first lockdown, tenants still can’t pay their rent and debt is piling up. This is hurting tenants and small landlords alike. We need a holistic approach that protects Californians in the short-run while forgiving unsustainable debts over the long term. That’s why we’re joining the Housing Now! coalition and Tenants Together on a statewide phone zap to tell our elected leaders to act now.
Will you join me by urging your state senator, assembly member and Governor Gavin Newsom to pass both prevent evictions AND forgive rent debt?
Time is running out. California’s statewide protections will start expiring by the end of this month. Millions face eviction. We have to pass AB 15 before the end of January. And we will not solve the long-term repercussions on the economic health of our communities without passing AB 16.
ASK YOUR ELECTED OFFICIALS TO SAY YES ON AN EVICTION MORATORIUM AND RENT DEBT FORGIVENESS -- AB 15 AND AB16!!!
Let’s do our part in turning the corner on this pandemic. Our fight now will help protect millions of people in California. And when we fight, we win!
Support Water Protector Steve Martinez
Steve was first subpoenaed to a federal grand jury related to indigenous resistance at Standing Rock in 2017. He refused to cooperate then. Now, 4 years later, he has been dragged in front of another grand jury investigating NO DAPL resistance. He is currently incarcerated for again standing by his principles and refusing to cooperate.
Write to Steve
PO Box 2499
Bismarck, ND 58502
(Only plain black ink on plain white paper)
Urgent Appeal from Myanmar Medical Workers
Direct Appeal to International Medical Community
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
We, Myanmar medical doctors, have been bearing the brunt of global Covid-19 pandemic and providing much needed medical care to our patients despite limited resources and infrastructure.
Now, Myanmar military has ruthlessly staged a coup d’etat and installed themselves as military government, putting their own interests above our vulnerable population, who have been facing medical, economic, and social hardship during global pandemic.
Because the military regime lacks any political legitimacy, we do not recognize them as our government. We refuse to obey any order from the illegitimate military regime. Who has demonstrated they do not have any regards for our poor patients.
We will only listen and follow the instruction from our democratically elected government, headed by State counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyl and President U Win Myint.
Global community and global institutions are apparently powerless now.
We directly appeal to our brothers and sisters in global medical community, who understand our physical, emotional and mental hardships.
Please stand together with us. Please share this news forward. Please pressure your government not to recognize the illegitimate military regime.
Your brother and sisters
Civil Disobedience Movement
Date: 3rd February 2021
Elderly and Disabled Subjected to Horrific Conditions During COVID Outbreak at California Prison in Vacaville
For Immediate Release
For more information, contact:
Vacaville-An outbreak of Covid-19 is raging out of control at the California Medical Facility, a prison in Vacaville that holds many elderly and high-risk people. On December 11, the number of positive cases at CMF was 2. On December 12, the prison went into lockdown. Within five days, the number of cases had risen to 58. As of January 17,, the number of positive cases was 260 (almost 13% of the population). At the height of the outbreak, the total was 463. In all, 520 people (almost 26% of the population) have been infected, and seven have died.
D-dorm at CMF is currently being used as the triage / covid positive dorm. The dorm was formerly used to house the dogs that were part of the Paws for Life program. The dogs were removed shortly after the start of the pandemic, and the dorm was not cleaned prior to being used for quarantine. Staff are not stepping up to help clean, and the few incarcerated who are well enough to clean are not being given adequate cleaning supplies. Laundry is not being picked up. The strain of covid that is moving through CMF is causing severe diarrhea. Several people have soiled themselves and do not have access to clean clothes. Each person is only being given one roll of toilet paper per week.
Around the end of December, a man fainted and defecated on himself. When medical staff refused to respond to calls for help, other incarcerated people in the dorm, who were themselves ill, cleaned him up and carried him to his bed before he was finally taken to an outside hospital. In a similar incident, a man fainted and was refused medical attention for hours before finally being carried out on a stretcher. Staff are hesitant to call ambulances because of Plata v. Newsom, the ongoing litigation against the corrections department for its substandard healthcare.
As in other prisons ravaged by Covid, the layout of CMF, along with reckless actions by staff, are exacerbating the situation. Some correctional officers are not wearing masks or refusing to wear them properly. Many refuse to wear gloves. Some are moving around from positive to negative units. People who are sick are not being given access to over-the-counter medications, and only a select few are being given antibody treatments. Poor ventilation within the prison is also a facilitator of the spread.
The ramifications of the outbreak extend beyond the physical illness caused by the virus. The incarcerated have been moved from one area to another in hopes of containing the virus. This has presented additional problems of loss of property. Access to phones has been restricted drastically so families are not in contact with their loved ones. The hearing impaired are further restricted, as they are barred from the specially-equipped phones they would normally use. The disabled population at CMF, who are supposed to have assistance with various daily living tasks from other incarcerated people have seen this help severely hampered by the outbreak. People with disabilities are required to be accommodated under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and no alternative accommodations for the disabled at CMF have been offered. Many of the population at CMF are over 60, with medical conditions such as diabetes, HIV and high blood pressure--all of which put them at higher risk of serious complications. Some have covid risk scores, as defined by California Correctional Health Care Services as high as 16.
The sudden and relentless spike in cases, as well as the prison's failure to take any substantive steps to mitigate the spread of the virus, have caused shock, fear, and outrage among loved ones of those inside.
"This outbreak has been climbing steadily for an entire month with cases increasing almost every day," said Olivia Campbell, an advocate for the rights of the incarcerated. "Efforts to get it under control have been insufficient and incompetent at best. But I think it's much more sinister. When you have correctional officers purposely infecting people, and so-called medical professionals neglecting elderly, sick, disabled people, leaving them to their fates in appalling conditions, in a congregate setting, in a facility that is supposed to have adequate medical services, I really don't even have words for how cruel and despicable that is."
Tell the New U.S. Administration - End
Economic Sanctions in the Face of the Global
Take action and sign the petition - click here!
To: President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and all Members of the U.S. Congress:
We write to you because we are deeply concerned about the impact of U.S. sanctions on many countries that are suffering the dire consequences of COVID-19.
The global COVID-19 pandemic and global economic crash challenge all humanity. Scientific and technological cooperation and global solidarity are desperate needs. Instead, the Trump Administration escalated economic warfare (“sanctions”) against many countries around the globe.
We ask you to begin a new era in U.S. relations with the world by lifting all U.S. economic sanctions.
U.S. economic sanctions impact one-third of the world’s population in 39 countries.
These sanctions block shipments and purchases of essential medicines, testing equipment, PPE, vaccines and even basic food. Sanctions also cause chronic shortages of basic necessities, economic dislocation, chaotic hyperinflation, artificial famines, disease, and poverty, leading to tens of thousands of deaths. It is always the poorest and the weakest – infants, children, the chronically ill and the elderly – who suffer the worst impact of sanctions.
Sanctions are illegal. They are a violation of international law and the United Nations Charter. They are a crime against humanity used, like military intervention, to topple popular governments and movements.
The United States uses its military and economic dominance to pressure governments, institutions and corporations to end all normal trade relations with targeted nations, lest they risk asset seizures and even military action.
The first step toward change must be an end to the U.S.’ policies of economic war. We urge you to end these illegal sanctions on all countries immediately and to reset the U.S.’ relations with the world.
Add your name - Click here to sign the petition:
Resources for Resisting Federal Repression
Since June of 2020, activists have been subjected to an increasingly aggressive crackdown on protests by federal law enforcement. The federal response to the movement for Black Lives has included federal criminal charges for activists, door knocks by federal law enforcement agents, and increased use of federal troops to violently police protests.
The NLG National Office is releasing this resource page for activists who are resisting federal repression. It includes a link to our emergency hotline numbers, as well as our library of Know-Your-Rights materials, our recent federal repression webinar, and a list of some of our recommended resources for activists. We will continue to update this page.
Please visit the NLG Mass Defense Program page for general protest-related legal support hotlines run by NLG chapters.
If you are contacted by federal law enforcement you should exercise all of your rights. It is always advisable to speak to an attorney before responding to federal authorities.
State and Local Hotlines
If you have been contacted by the FBI or other federal law enforcement, in one of the following areas, you may be able to get help or information from one of these local NLG hotlines for:
- Portland, Oregon: (833) 680-1312
- San Francisco, California: (415) 285-1041 or firstname.lastname@example.org
- Seattle, Washington: (206) 658-7963
If you are located in an area with no hotline, you can call the following number:
Know Your Rights Materials
The NLG maintains a library of basic Know-Your-Rights guides.
- Know Your Rights During Covid-19
- You Have The Right To Remain Silent: A Know Your Rights Guide for Encounters with Law Enforcement
- Operation Backfire: For Environmental and Animal Rights Activists
WEBINAR: Federal Repression of Activists & Their Lawyers: Legal & Ethical Strategies to Defend Our Movements: presented by NLG-NYC and NLG National Office
We also recommend the following resources:
Center for Constitutional Rights
Civil Liberties Defense Center
- Grand Juries: Slideshow
Grand Jury Resistance Project
Movement for Black Lives Legal Resources
Tilted Scales Collective
Democrats in control of the Legislature are pushing for a ban on executions, the latest policy change in an ascendant progressive agenda in the state.
By Trip Gabriel, Feb. 4, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/04/us/politics/virginia-death-penalty-northam.html?action=click&module=Latest&pgtype=Homepage
Since taking control of the state Legislature in 2019, Virginia Democrats have enacted a run of progressive laws — on gun control, abortion access and the removal of Confederate monuments. Now Virginia is poised to become the first state in the South to abolish the death penalty, a sign of ascendant liberal political power in a state that has executed more people since the 1970s than any other except Texas.
The action follows a spate of federal executions in the last months of the Trump administration that thrust capital punishment back into the national spotlight.
The Virginia State Senate on Wednesday passed a ban on executions along a party-line vote, and a similar measure is moving forward in the House of Delegates, which could vote on final passage on Friday. Democrats hold majorities in both chambers, thanks to a blue wave in November 2019 that was a rebuke to former President Donald J. Trump.
Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat who championed other progressive laws, said it was past time for the state to end capital punishment.
“It’s important that we shut down the machinery of death here in Virginia,” Mr. Northam said in an interview on Thursday. He cited a case in which the state came within days of executing a man in 1985 who was later cleared by DNA evidence, as well as the racial inequity in the percentage of Black people who have been put to death.
In his State of the Commonwealth address last month, Mr. Northam called for abolition of the death penalty, saying a person was three times more likely to be sentenced to death if the victim was white than Black.
Seventeen of the 18 Republicans in the Senate opposed the ban, arguing that some crimes are so heinous that execution is justified as punishment.
“These are savage crimes,” Senator Mark Obenshain, a Republican, said after describing the case of a man executed in 2017 for killing a couple and their two young daughters in a home invasion in Richmond.
Acknowledging that racial inequities and false convictions took place in the past, Republicans said that DNA evidence and the rarity of capital cases — there are just two inmates on death row currently — meant it was being judiciously applied today.
“I do not believe that this bill is an appropriate response to misapplications of capital punishment of decades and centuries past,” Mr. Obenshain said.
Since the United States Supreme Court restored the death penalty in 1976, Virginia has executed 113 people, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Only Texas, with 576 executions, has surpassed it. But the pace in Virginia has slowed in recent years. There have been no state executions since 2017 and no capital convictions since 2011 in the state.
Democratic officials have become increasingly outspoken about abolishing capital punishment, including Mr. Northam, who opposed the death penalty in a debate in 2017 while running for governor, shortly after Gov. Terry McAuliffe, also a Democrat, declined to halt the execution of a mentally ill man.
“It symbolizes the transformative change in Virginia’s political culture over 30 years," Bob Holsworth, a longtime political analyst in the state, said Thursday.
When Tim Kaine ran for governor in 2005, he said he personally opposed capital punishment but would carry it out as chief executive. But such a political straddle is no longer needed in a state that has ceased to be closely divided between the parties.
Virginia has moved decisively from being a battleground in presidential years to a blue state, and President Biden won it by 10 percentage points. Mr. Trump’s four years in office seriously damaged the G.O.P. brand in the state’s most populous regions, and few see a political cost to opposing the death penalty in elections this year for governor, attorney general and legislative seats.
“In terms of where the Democrats win elections in Virginia right now, I’m not sure there’s a downside to it,” Mr. Holsworth said.
The Trump administration’s spree of executions seems to have given the issue some urgency in Virginia. After a 17-year hiatus in which the Justice Department did not carry out any federal executions, lethal injections resumed in mid-2020, and 13 people were put to death. They included a Virginia man executed in Indiana five days before the inauguration of Mr. Biden, who has promised to abolish the federal death penalty.
“I heard more from people saying it’s time to end the death penalty during those executions than I have before,” said Jennifer McClellan, a Democratic candidate for Virginia governor in 2021 and a sponsor of the bill that passed the State Senate. “The bill was filed last year, but the rash of executions just put the issue front and center for some people who hadn’t thought about it before.”
Ms. McClellan, the vice chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, said the push was part of Mr. Northam’s drive to support issues of racial equity for Black Virginians, an agenda he committed to in early 2019 after surviving a blackface scandal that nearly forced his resignation.
“This is his final session, this is the final chance to secure a legacy,” she said of the governor, who cannot succeed himself under Virginia law.
To move the bill through the Legislature, Mr. Northam corralled a couple of Democratic senators who had previously supported capital punishment.
One was Richard L. Saslaw, the Democratic majority leader. He supported a 2016 bill to force condemned inmates to die by electric chair, in response to a shortage of lethal-injection drugs.
On Wednesday, Mr. Saslaw voted with his party to outlaw capital punishment.
“He’s changed his position,” Mr. Northam said. “I think that took bravery for him to do that.”
If the governor signs a bill, as expected, Virginia would be the 23rd state to end the death penalty.
Biden’s Raise the Wage Act should ensure that tipped workers receive fair pay.
By Michelle Alexander, Feb. 5, 2021
Ms. Alexander is a civil rights advocate, the author of “The New Jim Crow,” and a contributing Opinion writer.https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/05/opinion/minimum-wage-racism.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage§ion=OpEd%20Columnists
Once upon a time, I thought that it was perfectly appropriate for restaurant workers to earn less than minimum wage. Tipping, in my view, was a means for customers to show gratitude and to reward a job well done. If I wanted to earn more as a restaurant worker, then I needed to hustle more, put more effort into my demeanor, and be a bit more charming.
I thought this even when I was a waitress, working at a burger and burrito joint called Munchies during the summers when I was a college student. Collecting tips gave me a certain satisfaction. I liked sweeping dollar bills and coins off tables into the front pocket of my blue apron. Each time someone left me a big tip, anything more than I expected, a tiny jolt of dopamine flooded my brain as though I had just hit a mini jackpot. I got upset when people stiffed me, walking out and leaving nothing or just pennies — a true insult — but whenever that happened I reminded myself that I might get lucky next time. Or I would do better somehow.
Never did it occur to me that it was fundamentally unjust for me to earn less than the minimum wage and to depend on the good will of strangers in order to earn what was guaranteed by law to most workers. I had no idea that tipping was a legacy of slavery or that racism and sexism had operated to keep women, especially Black women like me, shut out of federal protections for wage labor. I did not question tipping as a practice, though looking back I see that I should have.
The first week on the job, one of my white co-workers, a middle-aged woman from rural Oregon, pulled me aside after she watched a group of rowdy white men, who had been rude and condescending to me throughout their meal, walk out the door without leaving a tip. “From now on, dear,” she said, “I’ll take the rednecks. Just pass ’em on to me.” This became a kind of joke between us — a wink and a nod before we switched tables — except it wasn’t funny. The risk that my race, not the quality of my work, would determine how much I was paid for my services was ever-present.
So was the risk that I would be punished for not flirting with the men I served. Men of all ages commented on my looks, asked me if I had a boyfriend, slipped me their phone numbers, and expected me to laugh along with their sexist jokes. I often played along, after learning from experience that the price of resistance would be the loss of tips that I had rightfully earned.
The truth was, though, that I was shielded from the biggest risk that tipped workers face: not being able to make ends meet. During the summers I spent waitressing, I was living at home with my parents and had my basic needs taken care of. On days when business was slow, and only a few customers trickled in, I was reminded that my situation was not the norm. I remember a co-worker crying at the end of her shift, because she hadn’t earned enough in tips to pay the babysitter. I remember a few of us pooling our tips so another co-worker could buy groceries on her way home and feed her kids.
After I graduated from law school, I became a civil rights lawyer and began representing victims of race and gender discrimination in employment, as well as victims of racial profiling and police violence. But it wasn’t until I read Saru Jayaraman’s book, “Forked: A New Standard for American Dining,” that I learned the history of tipping in the United States. After the Civil War, white business owners, still eager to find ways to steal Black labor, created the idea that tips would replace wages. Tipping had originated in Europe as “noblesse oblige,” a practice among aristocrats to show favor to servants. But when the idea came to the United States, restaurant corporations mutated the idea of tips from being bonuses provided by aristocrats to their inferiors to becoming the only source of income for Black workers they did not want to pay. The Pullman Company tried to get away with it too, but the Black porters, under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, formed the nation’s first Black union to be affiliated with the American Federation of Labor and fought and won higher wages with tips on top.
Restaurant workers, however — who were mostly women — were not so fortunate. The unjust concept of tips as wages remained in place for them. And in 1938, when Franklin Roosevelt signed the nation’s first minimum wage into law, it excluded restaurant workers, a category that included a disproportionate number of Black people.
In 1966, when our nation’s minimum wage was overhauled, restaurant workers were even more formally cut out with the creation of a subminimum wage for tipped workers. Today, 43 states and the federal government still persist with this legacy of slavery, allowing a tipped work force that is close to 70 percent female and disproportionately Black and brown women to be paid a subminimum wage. A nation that once enslaved Black people and declared them legally three-fifths of a person now pays many of their descendants less than a third of the minimum wage to which everyone else is entitled.
The subminimum wage for tipped workers isn’t simply born of racial injustice; it continues to perpetuate both race and gender inequity today.
In the mid-1960s, the guaranteed wage for tipped workers was $0 an hour. Today, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers is just $2.13 an hour — a just over $2 increase — and a mostly female, disproportionately women of color work force of tipped workers still faces the highest levels of harassment of any industry. Women restaurant workers in states with subminimum wage report twice the rate of sexual harassment as women working in restaurants in the seven states that have enacted One Fair Wage — a full minimum wage with tips on top. The women in these seven states — California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Montana, Minnesota and Alaska — can rely on a wage from their employer and are not as dependent on tips and thus feel empowered to reject the harassment from customers.
The unfair power dynamic between women tipped workers and male customers in most states has only worsened during the pandemic. Women restaurant workers report being regularly subjected to ‘Maskual harassment’, in which male customers are demanding that women servers take off their masks so that they can judge their looks and their tips on that basis. With tips now down 50 to 75 percent, male customers know women workers are more desperate than ever.
For Black women, the situation is especially dire. Before the pandemic, Black women who are tipped restaurant workers earned on average nearly $5 an hour less than their white male counterparts nationwide — largely because they are segregated into more casual restaurants in which they earn far less in tips than white men who more often work in fine dining, but also because of customer bias in tipping.
With the pandemic, these inequities were exacerbated; nearly nine in 10 Black tipped workers reported that their tips decreased by half or more, compared to 78 percent of workers overall. All workers were asked to do more for less — enforcing social distancing and mask rules on top of serving customers, for far less in tips. Black workers were more likely to be punished by hostile customers for attempting to serve as public health marshals than other workers. Seventy-three percent of Black workers reported that their tips decreased due to enforcing Covid-19 safety measures, compared to 62 percent of all workers. Technically, federal law requires that employers must cover the difference when the hourly wage, subsidized by tips, does not amount to $7.25 an hour. But in practice, that mandate is frequently ignored. A federal review of employment records from 2010-2012 revealed that nearly 84 percent of full-service restaurants had committed wage and hour violations.
Fortunately, the subminimum wage for tipped workers might finally come to an end if Congress enacts the minimum wage policy in President Biden’s new $1.9 trillion relief package in its entirety. The Raise the Wage Act, if passed, would not only raise the minimum wage to $15 minimum wage but also fully phase out the subminimum wage for tipped workers. This would be good news for women and people of color who’ve been denied a living wage and forced to endure harassment on the job, but it would ultimately benefit all tipped workers — and restaurants too. Workers in the seven states that have One Fair Wage receive similar or even higher tips as the workers in 43 states with a subminimum wage, and restaurants in those seven states have higher sales.
The National Restaurant Association has wasted no time launching a campaign to convince Congress to maintain the subminimum wage for tipped workers and the low minimum wage. This move hardly comes as a surprise. For more than 150 years since Emancipation, the restaurant industry has poured millions of dollars into lobbying elected officials to maintain their exemption from having to pay their workers a fair wage, causing tens of millions of women and men to experience poverty, food insecurity, home insecurity, and inequality over generations. As the Raise the Wage Act moves through Congress this month, the choice is clear: our representatives can choose to roll over to the trade lobby yet again and perpetuate a legacy of slavery, or they can choose to listen to the millions of workers — disproportionately women and people of color who increasingly represent this nation’s future voters — and make history during Black History Month by ending the subminimum wage for tipped workers once and for all.
By richardsonreports, February 5, 2021https://richardsonreports.wordpress.com/2021/02/05/black-votes-matter-asks-nebraska-pardon-board-to-release-former-black-panther-ed-poindexter-from-prison/
The campaign to obtain freedom for former Black Panther leader Edward Poindexter is gaining growing support as evidenced by a new billboard near Interstate 480 in Omaha, Nebraska, calling for his freedom. Poindexter has been imprisoned since 1970 for the bombing murder of an Omaha policeman following a controversial trial marred by withheld evidence, apparent planted evidence, conflicting police testimony, questionable forensic evidence, and perjured testimony by the state’s chief witness, Duane Peak, the confessed bomber.
Poindexter, sentenced to life at hard labor at the close of the April 1971 trial, has survived co-defendant David Rice (later Wopashitwe Mondo Eyen we Langa) who died at the maximum security Nebraska State Penitentiary in March 2016 while serving his life sentence. The two prisoners were leaders of a Black Panther Party affiliate chapter called the National Committee to Combat Fascism and targets of a clandestine counterintelligence operation code-named COINTELPRO conducted illegally by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Preston Love, Jr. is a member of the Freedom for Ed Committee that has held a prayer vigil, a march, and a demonstration outside the home of Governor Pete Ricketts. Love, who chairs the organization Black Votes Matter, is firmly convinced Poindexter was a victim of a wrongful conviction. Over the years, Freedom of Information lawsuits have slowly uncovered secret federal manipulation of the murder investigation and subsequent criminal trial. However, despite the revelations, Poindexter has not been granted a new trial.
Many, including a national justice group, have called Poindexter a political prisoner because of the COINTELPRO subterfuge and subsequent unfair courtroom injustice that has kept him imprisoned for half a century. The funds for the billboard were provided in a grant from the Jericho Movement to Free All Political Prisoners. Jericho Boston helped defray the billboard costs.
Denied a new trial by the courts, Poindexter is getting similar treatment from the Nebraska Pardon Board, made up of the Governor, Attorney General, and Secretary of State. The three politicians control Poindexter’s fate as they determine sentence commutations. Until the trio acts, the Nebraska Parole Board cannot take up Poindexter’s case.
Not only has the Pardon Board thus far declined to consider Poindexter’ request for a commutation of sentence, they insist he must continue to wait for a hearing. Despite Poindexter’s age, 76, and ailing health, the Pardon Board refuses to hear his case while they work on pardons for persons no longer in jail.
In a stunning display of disregard for the numerous calls throughout the country to reduce prison populations as the Covid virus runs rampant behind bars, the Nebraska Parole Board refuses to consider commutation requests ahead of pardons for those who have already served their sentence. The board has approximately fifty pending commutation requests yet only hears a half-dozen cases every several months. Instead, the majority of cases that appear before the board are for pardons from ex-convicts who have already been released from the prison risk of infection. The board also refuses to triage the commutation requests to put elderly or at risk prisoners on an expedited schedule.
Ricketts and his two political colleagues have failed Good Government 101. The best place to start on any reduction of the number of confined inmates would be with those seeking commutation. Their cases are already prepared for consideration and would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Preston Love explains the reason for the billboard. “It is time for the public to realize that Ed Poindexter is real and is vulnerable to forces beyond his control, just like the rest of us. His humanness, his face, his life. We hope this billboard will close the gap for many to speak out for Ed and help get the State’s knee off his throat, let him breathe”
More information on Ed Poindexter is available in the book FRAMED: J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO & the Omaha Two story, in print edition at Amazon and in ebook format. Portions of the book may also be read free online at NorthOmahaHistory.com. The book is also available to patrons of the Omaha Public Library.
An investigator went under cover and brought back disturbing video from a farm growing those famous birds.
By Nicholas Kristof, Opinion Columnist, Feb. 6, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/06/opinion/sunday/costco-chicken-animal-welfare.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage
Probably like many of you, I think of Costco as an enlightened company exemplifying capitalism that works. One ranking listed it as the No. 1 company to work at in terms of pay and benefits — a prime example of a business that is both profitable and humane.
Unless, it turns out, you’re a chicken.
Rotisserie chickens selling for just $4.99 each are a Costco hallmark, both delicious and cheap. They are so popular they have their own Facebook page, and the company sells almost 100 million of them a year. But an animal rights group called Mercy for Animals recently sent an investigator under cover to work on a farm in Nebraska that produces millions of these chickens for Costco, and customers might lose their appetite if they saw inside a chicken barn.
“It’s dimly lit, with chicken poop all over,” said the worker, who also secretly shot video there. “It’s like a hot humid cloud of ammonia and poop mixed together.”
You may be thinking: Huh? People are dying in a pandemic. Donald Trump is facing a Senate impeachment trial. And we’re talking about chicken, er, poop?
Yet we must guard our moral compasses. And some day, I think, future generations will look back at our mistreatment of livestock and poultry with pain and bafflement. They will wonder how we in the early 21st century could have been so oblivious to the cruelties that delivered $4.99 chickens to a Costco rotisserie.
Torture a single chicken in your backyard, and you risk arrest. Abuse tens of millions of them? Why, that’s agribusiness.
It’s not that Costco chickens suffer more than Walmart or Safeway birds. All are part of an industrial agricultural system that, at the expense of animal well-being, has become extremely efficient at producing cheap protein.
When Herbert Hoover talked about putting “a chicken in every pot,” chicken was a luxury: In 1930, whole dressed chicken retailed in the United States for $7 a pound in today’s dollars. In contrast, that Costco bird now sells for less than $2 a pound.
Those commendable savings have been achieved in part by developing chickens that effectively are bred to suffer. Scientists have created what are sometimes called “exploding chickens” that put on weight at a monstrous clip, about six times as fast as chickens in 1925. The journal Poultry Science once calculated that if humans grew at the same rate as these chickens, a 2-month-old baby would weigh 660 pounds.
The chickens grow enormous breasts, because that’s the meat consumers want, so the birds’ legs sometimes splay or collapse. Some topple onto their backs and then can’t get up. Others spend so much time on their bellies that they sometimes suffer angry, bloody rashes called ammonia burns; these are a poultry version of bed sores.
“They’re living on their own feces, with no fresh air and no natural light,” said Leah Garcés, the president of Mercy for Animals. “I don’t think it’s what a Costco customer expects.”
Garcés wants Costco to sign up for the “Better Chicken Commitment,” an industry promise to work toward slightly better standards for industrial agriculture. For example, each adult chicken would get at least one square foot of space, there would be some natural light and the company would avoid breeds that put on weight that the legs can’t support.
Burger King, Popeyes, Chipotle, Denny’s and some 200 other food companies have embraced the Better Chicken Commitment, but grocery chains generally have not, with the exception of Whole Foods.
I asked Costco for comment. John Sullivan, the company’s general counsel, viewed the Mercy for Animals video and said that much of it simply depicts “normal and uneventful activity” but that “no system is foolproof when you are raising 18 million broilers at any given time.” He said that the company is working to adjust the genetics of Costco birds to develop a “more proportionate” build, but that this takes time.
In one respect, Costco has shown real leadership. The most barbaric part of the chicken industry is the traditional slaughtering process, which results in some birds being boiled alive. To its credit, Costco has moved toward a far more humane approach called controlled atmosphere stunning, so that birds are stunned before being shackled to the conveyor belt that takes them to their deaths.
Sullivan argued that the company is focused on animal welfare at every step of production, even saying that trucks carrying live chickens are set up “for optimal comfort of the birds.”
Hearing the Costco pitch, you get the sense that Costco chickens are enjoying a middle-class avian existence until the moment they end up on the rotisserie. When birds topple onto their backs and can’t get up, when their undersides sometimes carry ammonia burns, don’t believe it.
Yet what struck me was that Costco completely accepts that animal welfare should be an important consideration. We may disagree about whether existing standards are adequate, but the march of moral progress on animal rights is unmistakable.
When I began writing about these issues, I never guessed that McDonald’s would commit to cage-free eggs, that California would legislate protections for mother pigs, that there would be court fights about whether an elephant has legal “personhood,” and that Pope Francis would suggest that animals go to heaven and that the Virgin Mary “grieves for the sufferings” of mistreated livestock.
Hmm. If the pope is right, Costco chickens may have a better shot at heaven than Costco executives.
I don’t pretend that there are neat solutions. We raised a flock of chickens on our family farm when I was a kid, and we managed to be neither efficient nor humane. Many birds died, and being eaten by a coyote wasn’t such a pleasant way to go, either. There’s no need for a misplaced nostalgia for traditional farming practices, just a pragmatic acknowledgment of animal suffering and trade-offs to reduce it.
Abuse of livestock and poultry persists largely because it is hidden — even as chickens are slaughtered in the United States at the rate of one million per hour, around the clock. We treat poultry particularly poorly because humans identify less with birds than with fellow mammals. We may empathize with a calf with big eyes, but less so with species that we dismiss as “bird brains.”
Still, the issue remains as the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham posed it in 1789: “The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
Many of us aren’t quite sure what rights animals should have, or how far to take this concern for animal well-being. We’re learning as we go, but most are willing to pay a bit more to avoid torturing animals, and that’s why fast-food restaurants make Better Chicken Commitments; it’s why Costco will eventually come around, too.
Haiti is “on the verge of explosion,” the country’s Episcopal bishops say. Many accuse the government of supporting gangs to stay in power as a constitutional crisis looms.
By Harold Isaac, Andre Paultre and Maria Abi-Habib, Feb. 7, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/07/world/americas/haiti-protests-President-Jovenel-Mois.html?action=click&module=News&pgtype=Homepage
Students marching through the country’s capital last month in response to the kidnapping of an elementary school student that morning. Credit...Valerie Baeriswyl/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The poor now target the poor in Haiti. Many fear leaving their homes, buying groceries or paying a bus fare — acts that can draw the attention of gangs out to kidnap anyone with cash, no matter how little.
Many schools shut their doors this month, not over Covid-19, but to protect students and teachers against a kidnapping-for-ransom epidemic that began haunting the nation a year ago. No one is spared: not nuns, priests or the children of struggling street vendors. Students now organize fund-raisers to collect ransoms to free classmates.
Their hardship may only worsen as Haiti hurtles toward a constitutional crisis. The opposition is demanding that President Jovenel Moïse step down on Sunday in a political showdown likely only to deepen the country’s paralysis and unrest.
After years enduring hunger, poverty and daily power cuts, Haitians say their country, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, is in the worst state it has ever seen, with the government unable to provide the most basic services.
Haiti is “on the verge of explosion,” a collection of the country’s Episcopal bishops said in a statement last weekend.
Mr. Moïse’s five-year presidential term ends on Sunday, which is why the opposition is demanding that he step down. But the president is refusing to vacate office before February 2022, arguing that an interim government occupied the first year of his five-year term.
On Friday, the United States government weighed in — an important opinion for many Haitians, who often look to their larger neighbor for guidance on the direction the political winds are blowing.
A State Department spokesman, Ned Price, supported Mr. Moïse’s argument that his term ends next February and added that only then “a new elected president should succeed President Moïse.”
But Mr. Price also sent a warning to Mr. Moïse about delaying elections and ruling by decree.
“The Haitian people deserve the opportunity to elect their leaders and restore Haiti’s democratic institutions,” Mr. Price added.
Mr. Moïse has led by presidential decree since last year, after suspending two-thirds of the Senate, the entire lower Chamber of Deputies and every mayor throughout the country. Haiti now has only 11 elected officials in office to represent its 11 million people, with Mr. Moïse having refused to hold any elections over the last four years.
Mr. Moïse is seeking to expand his presidential powers in the coming months by changing the country’s Constitution. A referendum on the new Constitution is set for April, and the opposition fears the vote will not be free or fair and will only embolden his budding authoritarian tendencies, assertions Mr. Moïse denies.
André Michel, 44, a leader of the opposition coalition, the Democratic and Popular Sector, vowed that if the president did not step down, the opposition would stage more protests and engage in civil disobedience.
“There is no debate,” he said. “His mandate is over.”
The opposition hopes to tap into the discontent of the millions of unemployed Haitians — more than 60 percent of the country lives in poverty — to fuel the protests, which in the past have often turned violent and shut down large parts of the country.
Although the president has never been weaker — holed up inside the presidential palace, he is unable to move freely even in the capital — observers say he has a good chance of staying on the job. A weak and feeble opposition is plagued by infighting and cannot agree on how to remove Mr. Moïse from power or whom to replace him with.
The political uncertainty has sowed feelings of dread, with fears that street demonstrations in coming days will turn violent and that a refusal by Mr. Moïse to leave office will plunge the country into a long period of unrest.
Zamor, a 57-year-old driver who would give only his middle name because of fears of retribution, said his daughter was snatched off the street in Port-au-Prince, the capital, last month. He now keeps his three children at home and prevents them from attending school.
“People need to have confidence in the state,” Zamor said, adding the government “is filled with kidnappers and gang members.”
Before the kidnapping epidemic, Haitians could listen to music with their neighbors on the street, play dominoes, go to the beach and commiserate with friends and neighbors about their economic despair. But now the fear of being abducted pervades the streets, hindering routine daily activities.
“The regime has delegated power to the bandits,” said Pierre Espérance, 57, a leading human rights activist.
“The country is now gangsterized — what we are living is worse than during the dictatorship,” he said, referring to the brutal autocratic rule of the Duvalier family that lasted nearly 30 years, until 1986.
Haitians suspect that the proliferation of gangs over the last two years has been supported by Mr. Moïse to stifle any dissent. At first, the gangs targeted opposition neighborhoods and attacked protests demanding better living conditions. But the gangs may have grown too big to be tamed and now seem to operate everywhere.
In December, the United States Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Mr. Moïse’s close allies — including the former director general of the interior ministry — for providing political protection and weapons to gangs that targeted opposition areas.
The sanctions highlighted a five-day attack last May that terrorized neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince. The Treasury Department said that gang members, with the cover and support of government officials, raped women and set houses on fire.
The government denies providing support to any gangs.
Tourism has ground to a halt, and the vast Haitian diaspora in the United States and elsewhere is staying away from the country.
“Things have gotten more and more difficult since the arrival of Jovenel Moïse,” said Marvens Pierre, 28, a craftsman trying to sell souvenirs in a public square in the capital.
He had entrusted his two young children to his mother because she was receiving remittances from abroad and could afford to feed them. He said he was finding it difficult to sell his products.
“I can easily spend two weeks without being able to sell my stuff,” Mr. Pierre lamented. “This morning I had to ask a neighbor for her soap to bathe.”
Harold Isaac and Andre Paultre reported from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Maria Abi-Habib from Mexico City. Kirk Semple contributed reporting from Mexico City.
Inside an overwhelmed facility in the worst-hit part of California, where the patriarchs of two immigrant families were taken when they fell sick.
By Sheri Fink, Feb. 8, 2021
Photographs by Isadora Kosofskyhttps://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/08/us/covid-los-angeles.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage
LOS ANGELES — Over the New Year’s holiday, the grown children of two immigrant families called 911 to report that their fathers were having difficulty breathing. The men, born in Mexico and living three miles from each other in the United States, both had diabetes and high blood pressure. They both worked low-wage, essential jobs — one a minibus driver, the other a cook. And they both hadn’t realized how sick they were.
Three weeks later, the men — Emilio Virgen, 63, and Gabriel Flores, 50 — both died from Covid-19. Their stories were hauntingly familiar at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital, by size the hardest-hit hospital in the hardest-hit county in the state now leading the nation in cases and on the brink of surpassing New York with the highest death toll. In the intensive care unit on Jan. 21, Mr. Virgen became No. 207 on the hospital’s list of Covid-19 fatalities; Mr. Flores, just down the hall, became No. 208.
The New York Times spent more than a week inside the hospital, during a period when nearly a quarter of all Covid inpatients there were dying, despite advances in knowledge of the disease. It was an outcome that approached that of some New York hospitals last spring, when the city was the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. That rise coincided with a surge of cases in Southern California, a doubling of the mortality rate in Los Angeles hospitals over all and the spread of a new local strain that may be more transmissible than the more prevalent one.
Eight out of ten of those who died at M.L.K. hospital were Hispanic, a group with the highest Covid-19 death rates in Los Angeles County, followed by Black residents. County data also showed that the most impoverished Los Angeles residents, many of them around the hospital in South Los Angeles, are dying of the disease at four times the rate of the wealthiest.
Michelle Goldson, an I.C.U. nurse who cared for both Mr. Virgen and Mr. Flores, said many patients had a “distrust of the health care system, distrust of doctors” and came in only when desperately ill. Severe cases, she said, weren’t limited to older people. “Everybody’s dying here,” she said. As she headed home one recent evening, she waved at a 27-year-old patient who was sitting up eating dinner. When she returned the next morning, he was dead. “What kind of virus is this?” she asked.
Right now, it is one that is merciless in dense, low-income neighborhoods like those where Mr. Virgen and Mr. Flores lived. Relatives similarly described them as hardworking and upbeat, determined to provide for their families. Mr. Virgen raised four children who all went to college, and stubbornly nurtured scrawny mango and lemon trees. Mr. Flores was proud that his oldest son, a Dreamer who had been slipped into the country as a toddler, had graduated from the Los Angeles police academy.
For M.L.K.’s chief executive, Dr. Elaine Batchlor, the inequities in disease and death from Covid reflect those long present in the community. Patients come from what she termed a “medical desert,” with chronic shortages of primary care doctors and other health services.
In the best of times, her small institution cannot match what many other hospitals offer, from caring for preemies to major heart attack victims. Now, amid the pandemic, the hospital can’t test experimental therapies, can’t draw on a large pool of specialized staff in a surge and can’t offer last-chance care on an external lung machine.
During the peak, M.L.K. treated more Covid patients than some Los Angeles hospitals three to four times its size. While Dr. Batchlor emphasizes that her institution has learned to be nimble, she also says it has been overwhelmed. She has pleaded with the governor for help, tried to shame other institutions into accepting transfers of patients and spoken out about the failings of American health care.
“We’ve created a separate and unequal hospital system and a separate and unequal funding system for low-income communities,” she said in an interview. “And now with Covid, we’re seeing the disproportionate impact.”
While Mr. Flores and Mr. Virgen were patients at M.L.K., their families worried about whether everything possible was being done to save them. “I want to believe that they did give him the best care, that they did give him a fighting chance,” Tiffany Virgen, Mr. Virgen’s younger daughter, said after his death. “We want to hope that they did.”
The legacy of ‘Killer King’
When the ambulance crew picked up Mr. Virgen, they told his family he was going to nearby St. Francis Medical Center, a large private hospital with a slate of specialized services.
But when his older daughter, Eunice, a 35-year-old social worker, called to check, he was not there. The facility was filled to capacity with the Covid surge, she was eventually told, and had turned the ambulance away. Her father instead went to M.L.K., which is less than half the size of St. Francis and had dozens more Covid inpatients that week, according to federal data.
Ms. Virgen was incredulous. She thought of M.L.K. as “Killer King,” the derisive nickname of its troubled predecessor, Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, a public hospital that had served some of the lowest-income neighborhoods of Los Angeles.
Mr. Virgen and his wife, Lizette, lived about six miles away, in a modest stucco townhouse just outside the city line. He arrived from Mexico in the 1970s as a teenager, undocumented, but obtained citizenship after an amnesty under President Ronald Reagan. It was at a bus stop in Central L.A. that he first caught sight of the woman he would marry, a Honduran immigrant doing domestic work at Beverly Hills mansions.
Mr. Virgen had gone only to primary school and spoke broken English, which limited his options. While he worked as a custodian and at a car dealership, the growing family struggled financially at times, moving from place to place in neighborhoods rife with drug trafficking and gang violence.
For much of the last decade, he was a driver for AltaMed, a local health care system, busing Latino seniors to doctor’s appointments and other activities. He often returned home with gifts of oranges, pomegranates, guavas, tamales and sweets from his passengers. His pandemic duties included delivering medicine and food to them; he also looked after his wife, who was suffering from health problems.
The family first called 911 on New Year’s Eve, more than a week after his children believe he was exposed to the coronavirus attending a Sunday service and lunch at a small evangelical church in a strip mall. Within days, the pastor was ill, along with most other attendees; two later died.
Gov. Gavin Newsom had ordered houses of worship closed in state hot spots. But Los Angeles County health officials reversed the closures on Dec. 19 after the U.S. Supreme Court supported a church challenging the order. The fateful service occurred the next day.
Three of Mr. Virgen’s children had repeatedly begged him not to go to services, which were sometimes held in defiance of the ban. Praying together was essential, said the pastor, Edgar Guaran. He described Mr. Virgen as an expressive worshiper who found his mask too confining and removed it.
In dismissing his family’s concerns, Mr. Virgen invoked his faith. “I’m going to be fine,” Eunice recalled him saying. “The blood of Jesus will cover me.”
Awaiting the ambulance, Mr. Virgen had been hunched over gasping for air. He had high blood pressure and diabetes, risk factors for severe consequences of the virus. But when the paramedics examined him, his oxygen level was normal. Hospitals were so jammed that he was likely to wait 10 to 12 hours before being admitted, they warned. So his family kept him home. The same day, Mr. Virgen’s mother died of Covid in Mexico.
His older daughter bought vitamins and a humidifier and instructed him to lie on his stomach — proning, as many Covid hospital patients do, to improve lung function. A son brought cleaning supplies. Tiffany Virgen, 25, who planned to become a nurse practitioner, treated his cough with teas and coaxed him to inhale steam infused with citrus peels and eucalyptus. She tried repeatedly to reach his primary care doctor; the physician finally responded a few days after New Year’s, prescribing antibiotics, a cough suppressant and a refill of blood pressure medication.
On Jan. 6, a fingertip oxygen monitor she had ordered finally arrived and showed that her father’s oxygen levels were in the 60s, far below the normal range in the 90s. That was a sign of “silent hypoxia,” when dangerously low oxygen levels fail to cause extreme shortness of breath. Alarmed, she called 911 again.
After Mr. Virgen was sent to M.L.K., his older daughter asked a physician friend if she should try to get him transferred to a hospital like Cedars-Sinai, a large medical center famous for treating celebrities. Mr. Virgen’s job provided health insurance, so he did not need to depend on a safety-net institution. But the friend reassured her that the new M.L.K. hospital was nothing like the old one.
King/Drew opened in 1972 after community activists fought for a public hospital to serve some of Los Angeles’s poorest neighborhoods after the 1965 Watts riots. It had a state-of-the-art trauma center and was a source of hope and pride.
But over the years, the quality of care deteriorated. The hospital closed its trauma unit and cut other services. In 2004, The Los Angeles Times documented the hospital’s failings, finding a pattern of errors, neglect and incompetence that resulted in horrifying injuries and deaths. Among those who died were a 9-year-old girl who was oversedated, a 27-year-old woman with clear signs of a heart attack that went ignored, and a patient whose colon was stitched through instead of her ovaries. Medical errors occur everywhere, but King/Drew had more state health violations than nearly any other hospital. Regulators ranked it among the nation’s worst. In 2007, it was shuttered.
Eight years later, the new M.L.K. opened. The modern, smaller, 131-bed hospital was built by the county but managed privately. Dr. Batchlor raised funds for physicians’ salaries, attracting those who had trained at U.C.L.A. and other top institutions.
But the hospital offered limited services: emergency surgery only (most commonly amputations for diabetes patients), no pediatric care, no neonatal intensive care, no trauma center, no inpatient psychiatric or addiction treatment. For many medical problems, patients had to go elsewhere. Other institutions often rejected them, though, because only 4 percent of M.L.K. patients had private insurance, which typically reimburses care at higher rates than public insurers.
Mr. Flores, a father of three who arrived in M.L.K.’s emergency room on New Year’s Day, was a typical patient. An undocumented immigrant from Mexico, he worked long hours as a restaurant cook. He had diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity, the top three high-risk conditions among M.L.K.’s Covid inpatients, and relied on the state’s Medicaid coverage for health emergencies.
Mr. Flores’s oldest child, Manuel, 24, asked whether his father could get convalescent plasma, a therapy that won federal approval last summer for emergency use. The family knew people who had been transfused with it and survived. But M.L.K. did not offer the treatment, which studies have suggested may be effective when given early in someone’s illness.
It was unclear how long Mr. Flores had been infected with the coronavirus. He and his 8-year-old son had felt achy and feverish shortly before Christmas. Soon his wife, Gabriela, had symptoms, too. After the family went to Dodger Stadium for testing, only hers came back positive.
Weeks later, the county halted the use of the Curative oral swab tests the family had been given. The F.D.A. had alerted providers to the risk of false negative results with the test, which could delay treatment and increase the virus’s spread.
Even with the one positive result, no one informed the Flores family about the need to isolate or quarantine. The parents, who did not speak English, and their two younger children continued sleeping on bunk beds in the single bedroom of their tiny apartment.
Mr. Flores, believing he did not have Covid despite feeling ill, continued working at the restaurant. The family lived paycheck to paycheck on his weekly earnings of $580. He’d recently bought a taco truck, hoping to build up a catering business, but demand fell off during the pandemic. He also bartered, trading his carnitas for services like car repairs.
While M.L.K. did not offer convalescent plasma to patients, it did have a similar, more targeted treatment: monoclonal antibodies. President Donald J. Trump received it last fall when he developed Covid, before the therapy gained federal emergency approval.
It should be given when someone is mildly ill, not requiring oxygen or hospitalization, according to federal guidelines. M.L.K. has administered just over 140 doses to emergency room patients and found evidence that it reduced the chances they would return seriously ill, according to hospital data.
But M.L.K. has not promoted community awareness of the therapy. “If we publicize it,” said Dr. K. Kevin Park, a vice president for medical affairs, “we wouldn’t be able to handle” the volume if many people showed up. The treatment requires an hourlong infusion and another hour of observation, creating additional demands for space and staff.
Some other institutions in Los Angeles, including Cedars-Sinai, have given hundreds of doses. “Obese Hispanics with diabetes, they’re the ones that get really sick and they’re the ones you can help,” said Dr. Peter Chen, director of pulmonary and critical care medicine there, and the lead author of a journal article published last month reporting promising interim trial results for the treatment. Despite being safe and paid for by the federal government, the antibody regimen has not been widely adopted.
One exception is Houston. The city’s largest medical system, Methodist, administered approximately 3,000 doses since late November, according to hospital officials, who scrambled to create specialized infusion centers throughout the region. They estimate that the drug helped prevent 300 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in Methodist’s system alone. “It feels like we’re starting to play offense,” said Vicki Brownewell, a vice president who oversees the program.
But when Mr. Flores was experiencing symptoms early on, his worried wife could not even reach the physician he saw at a clinic offering low- or no-cost care. She was told the doctors were busy doing remote visits. “They had a long waiting list,” she said. “They hung up on me.”
‘We’re kind of out of tricks’
The day after he was hospitalized, Mr. Flores was transferred to the I.C.U. Doctors believed his only chance of survival was to go on a ventilator. But he had a “Do Not Resuscitate/Do Not Intubate” order on his chart because he had heard that people on ventilators with Covid “were just passing away,” his adult son, Manuel, later said.
Refusing intubation was most common among the hospital’s male Hispanic patients, according to Dr. Jason Prasso, an I.C.U. doctor. “They say, ‘If it’s my time, I don’t want to be on a ventilator for three weeks before I die.’” Some extremely sick patients even asked to leave the hospital to return to work, afraid of missing a paycheck and getting evicted.
Still, 86 percent of Covid patients who had been intubated at M.L.K. had died, according to hospital statistics. That week, 12 in the I.C.U. had died in three days.
“That is a tragedy,” Dr. Nida Qadir, co-director of the medical intensive care unit at Ronald Reagan U.C.L.A. Medical Center, said of the M.L.K. statistic. Her hospital had mortality levels “a lot lower than that,” she said, though the hospital had not publicly released the figure. A new study of patients at 168 hospitals found that about half of Covid patients on ventilators died, and survival varied widely among hospitals.
Dr. Theodore J. Iwashyna, a critical care physician at the University of Michigan, said the differences in hospital outcomes reflected a “system choice.” He and others have studied patients with complex pulmonary conditions and found that those treated at smaller hospitals with fewer resources and less experience in managing them tend to have poorer survival rates. “Big hospitals should have been accepting those patients and pulling those patients out” of M.L.K., he said.
During the Los Angeles surge, hospital mortality also rose because fewer mildly ill patients were hospitalized, said Dr. Roger J. Lewis, a professor of emergency medicine at Harbor-U.C.L.A. Medical Center who helps analyze Covid data for the county. That was likely even more the case at small hospitals like M.L.K. in areas with high rates of chronic illnesses, he said.
The medical team invited Mr. Flores’s wife to the hospital, usually closed to visitors during the pandemic. She found her husband frightened and shaking. He was not getting enough oxygen, a doctor explained, and without a ventilator he could die in two days. Mr. Flores told her he wanted to go home, then changed his mind. He was exhausted and had chest pain, he said. He would try the ventilator because he wanted to live longer for his family.
Still, his oxygen levels remained low. Doctors gave him steroids and drugs that counter blood clots. They turned him on his stomach, and even paralyzed him for periods to help the ventilator work more effectively. But nothing seemed to make a difference. Mr. Flores had “cut-and-dried Covid pulmonary failure,” Dr. Prasso said.
Some Covid patients have one last option: treatment using a machine that gives the lungs a chance to rest and, hopefully, repair. The procedure, extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, is typically offered only in larger hospitals to patients who meet stringent criteria.
Mr. Flores might have been a candidate for it at one point, according to Dr. Christopher Ortiz, a critical care specialist from U.C.L.A., a top-ranked hospital, who pitched in at M.L.K. But Dr. Prasso said he had stopped considering the treatment. Earlier in the pandemic, he had pushed to transfer some M.L.K. patients to hospitals providing ECMO, but finally gave up.
“We’ve never been successful,” he said. “Nobody wants their insurance.”
Dr. Vadim Gudzenko, medical director of the adult ECMO service at U.C.L.A., said his hospital had treated about 30 Covid patients with the technique, two-thirds of whom were still alive. Nearly all had been transferred from other hospitals, and one or two were uninsured. However, he acknowledged, several patients referred to U.C.L.A. had been turned down because their insurance did not cover treatment there. “This is the ugly part of what medicine is in this country,” he said.
As Mr. Flores struggled, M.L.K. hospital was also under enormous strain. On one Friday afternoon, the 29-bed emergency room was packed with 104 patients, 44 of whom had been admitted and were lining hallways or in outdoor tents awaiting beds in the I.C.U. or medical wards. Patients had been stuck in the emergency department for up to two weeks. An E.R. doctor was assigned to respond to Code Blues — calls for resuscitation efforts — around the hospital. There were 12 in that day’s 12-hour shift. Nurses were caring for more patients than regulations typically allowed — at times on the wards, nearly twice as many — after the governor loosened the rules to help hospitals cope.
M.L.K. cleared out an entire medical ward to create an expanded intensive care unit, mostly for ventilator patients — two to a room, with thick plastic sheets hanging over the open doors. The makeshift I.C.U. at its peak held 40 patients, four times the usual pre-pandemic census and far sicker over all than what the staff was used to handling. Dozens of other patients requiring high-flow oxygen who typically would be in the unit were treated on other floors. “Everybody has been pushed out of their comfort zone,” Dr. Prasso said of the medical team, adding that they had worked hard and risen to the occasion.
Dr. Ortiz, the visiting U.C.L.A. specialist, said that on arrival he “literally felt like it was a war zone,” with more deaths, fewer resources and staff under far greater stress than in the I.C.U. at his much larger hospital. “It was a form of critical care I’d never witnessed,” he said.
Being so overburdened and understaffed meant that emergencies among the sickest patients drew attention away from preventing problems in others, all requiring near-constant monitoring. Missing “even something seemingly trivial” in the critically ill, he said, “can be deadly.”
One morning just before rounds, Mr. Flores’s roommate died. His own condition was perilous. That afternoon, a Code Blue was called for him. His oxygen levels were in the 70s. His kidneys were failing. His heart was beating in the 140s, its upper chambers fibrillating. The team shocked him to restore a normal rhythm.
Dr. Prasso could not think of much more to do. “We’re kind of out of tricks,” he said. He called Mr. Flores’s wife to warn that the situation was grave. He and the other I.C.U. doctors delivered such news multiple times a day. “You’re going to take away her medicines and kill her?” one relative responded to a doctor who had suggested stopping aggressive care.
“It’s a historically disenfranchised community,” Dr. Prasso said, “so the idea of pulling back is often viewed not as compassionate but as withholding.”
That evening, Mr. Flores’s wife and his older son came to visit him. Gabriela Flores held her husband’s hand and stroked his forehead. “Mi amor,” she repeated. “Te amo.”
Down the hallway, Mr. Virgen, the minibus driver, was also unconscious on a ventilator. After initially improving, his condition had suddenly declined.
Like Mr. Flores, he had developed acute kidney injury, a common complication of severe Covid that can require temporary dialysis to replace the work of the kidneys. M.L.K. had only three machines to deliver continuous dialysis, a form of the treatment used for the most unstable I.C.U. patients. That forced the hospital to prioritize whom to put on the machines — and for how long — and to manage other patients with medications.
At U.C.L.A.’s flagship hospital, there was no such shortage. “It’s really amazing technology,” Dr. Gudzenko said. “It’s remarkable how differently you can practice medicine when you have enough resources.”
Doctors managed Mr. Virgen’s kidney failure conservatively, without needing to use dialysis. But as other problems developed, they told his family he did not have long. On a Zoom call on Jan. 20, with a tablet computer next to his bed, his children tried to reassure one another that they had done everything they could and lamented how quickly he had declined.
“I don’t want to say goodbye,” Tiffany Virgen told her siblings. “I don’t want to live a life without him.”
“He was my strong, Mexican, tall, handsome dad,” said her sister, Eunice, crying. “He thought he was invincible. He thought he was Superman.”
Early the next morning, they lost him.
Five hours and five minutes later, Mr. Flores also died.
His mother, Maria Alcalan Magallon, arrived from Guadalajara the next day. With the help of the hospital, she had obtained a visa but couldn’t get there in time. Mother and son had not seen each other for more than two decades; now, she wanted to bury him back home in Mexico.
But that, too, would have to wait. Funeral homes in Los Angeles had long lists of grieving families waiting to claim the remains of their dead. “They told us in two or three months,” she said. “That doesn’t sit right with me.”
Isadora Kosofsky contributed reporting.
Booming business during the pandemic hasn’t always meant better wages, and they have largely been left off vaccine priority lists.
By Sapna Maheshwari and Michael Corkery, Feb. 8, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/08/business/grocery-workers-hero-pay-vaccines.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage
It has been an exhausting 10 months for Toni Ward Sockwell, an assistant manager at Cash Saver, a grocery chain, in Guthrie, Okla. She has been helping to oversee about 40 anxious employees during a deadly pandemic, vigilantly disinfecting counters at the store and worrying about passing the coronavirus to her elderly mother while dropping off produce.
News of the vaccines initially boosted her spirits, but her optimism faded as she learned that grocery store workers in Oklahoma would not be eligible for them until spring.
“When they said we were Phase 3, I wanted to laugh,” Ms. Sockwell, 45, said. “We’re around just as many sick people as we are around nonsick people, just like health care workers, because we are always going to be open to supply food to the public.
“Health care workers are heroes in my eyes,” she added. “But we are forgotten.”
The race to distribute vaccines and the emergence of more contagious variants of Covid-19 have put a renewed spotlight on the plight of grocery workers in the United States. The industry has boomed in the past year as Americans have stayed home and avoided restaurants. But in most cases, that has not translated into extra pay for its workers. After Long Beach, Calif., mandated hazard pay for grocery workers, the grocery giant Kroger responded last week by saying it would close two locations.
And now, even as experts warn people to minimize time spent in grocery stores because of new coronavirus variants, The New York Times found only 13 states that had started specifically vaccinating those workers.
“Grocers are known to have these very thin margins, which they do, but they have been very profitable during the pandemic,” said Molly Kinder, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has researched retailers’ pay during the pandemic. “Employers by and large, with only a few exceptions like Trader Joe’s and Costco, ended hazard pay months and months ago.”
She added, “If you look at how the virus has gone since then, it’s so much more deadly now.”
Brookings found that 13 of the largest retail and grocery companies in the United States earned $17.7 billion more in the first three quarters of 2020 than they did a year earlier, but most stopped offering extra compensation to their associates in the early summer. At the same time, some opted to buy back shares and gave big sums to executives. The United Food and Commercial Workers union said that at least 28,700 grocery workers around the country had been infected with or exposed to the coronavirus and at least 134 of the workers have died from the virus.
The tension is especially high on the West Coast, where cities like Los Angeles and Seattle have moved forward with mandates that require hazard pay for essential grocery workers — and are now facing threats of store closures and even an end to food bank donations from grocers.
Bertha Ayala, who works at a Food 4 Less store in Long Beach, was ecstatic after the city enacted an ordinance last month requiring her store, which is owned by Kroger, to pay its workers an additional $4 per hour of “hero pay” to compensate them for the risks they face.
“I love my job,” Ms. Ayala said. “But it has been very stressful.” She said the extra pay was welcome considering the high cost of living in Southern California and as a validation of her sacrifices in going to work.
But only days after the additional money started flowing to Ms. Ayala and her colleagues, supervisors told the staff last week that Kroger was shutting down the store because of the hero pay requirement. Kroger also said it was closing a second store in Long Beach. The employees’ union said it had not been told whether Kroger would move the workers to other locations.
“Kroger is sending a message, more than anything else,” said Andrea Zinder, president of Local 324 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents about 160 employees at the two stores. “They are trying to intimidate workers and communities: If you pass these types of ordinances, there will be consequences.”
Kroger, which operates about 2,750 stores, has attracted particular attention because it pursued stock buybacks last year and because its chief executive, Rodney McMullen, earned more than $20 million in 2019. The median compensation of a Kroger employee that year was $26,790, or a ratio of 789 to 1, according to company filings.
“In 2020 alone, Kroger has invested well over $1.3 billion to safeguard and reward our associates and committed nearly $1 billion to secure pensions for tens of thousands of our associates across the country,” the company said in a statement. “This is in addition to the more than $800 million the company will have invested in associate wage increases from 2018 to 2020 — which are not one-time awards but lasting wage increases.” On Friday, the company also said it would provide $100 to all workers who received a coronavirus vaccine.
Lisa Harris, a cashier at Kroger in Mechanicsville, Va., said the company had not given extra compensation to employees since it ended its $2-per-hour hero pay in May. It occasionally gives workers $100 to spend on groceries, but things are otherwise “business as usual,” she said.
Meanwhile, she said, colleagues are signing cards for one another when relatives die from Covid-19 and dealing with working in a busy store where customers sometimes refuse to wear masks.
“We’ve had people quit, we’ve had verbal alterations between associates because they’re too stressed,” said Ms. Harris, 32, a member of her local U.F.C.W. “It’s rough to get up the courage, which is what it takes to walk in that door each day.”
Seattle recently enacted a hero pay requirement of $4 an hour, which an industry group warned could prompt smaller grocery chains to cut back on donations to food banks and charities or reduce store hours because it was eating into already thin profit margins.
“They care so much about their communities and their employees,” said Tammie Hetrick, chief executive of the Washington Food Industry Association. “Whatever they have to do is going to be such a difficult decision for them.”
The wage mandate is happening in other cities, too. On Tuesday, the Los Angeles City Council voted to move forward with a $5-an-hour requirement.
Some grocery chains have made a choice to pay their workers more. Trader Joe’s increased its pandemic “thank you” pay to $4 an hour from $2 an hour, starting last week nationwide. Ms. Sockwell of Cash Saver said the chain gave workers two months of hazard pay early in the pandemic and an end-of-the-year bonus that amounted to about $1,200 for full-time employees and several hundred dollars for part-time staff.
HAC, the Oklahoma company that owns Cash Saver and Homeland, is employee-owned. Its chief executive, Marc Jones, said the initial hero pay last year was “a reflection of the surge of people in our stores, and when that surge died down it seemed like the appropriate time to end it.” It was a huge expense for the company, he said, which has about 80 stores and 3,400 employees, and competes with Walmart.
Even with a better year than usual, groceries are a “peculiarly low-profit” business, Mr. Jones said. Until March, he said, “it was a big question of whether the local grocery store would even survive and if everybody was going to go online.”
Ms. Sockwell said she was more concerned about the vaccine delay for grocery workers, particularly given that her colleagues tended to work every hour they could, at minimum wage.
“Most of my employees up front, they barely have high school diplomas,” said Ms. Sockwell, whose local unit of the U.F.C.W. has been trying to get Oklahoma officials to get grocery staff on the priority list for vaccinations. “They want to do anything they can to keep food and electricity on at their home.”
She added, “We are menial labor people that don’t require bachelor’s and master’s degrees, but we’re still people.”
At least 13 states have made some grocery store workers eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine in at least some counties. They are Alabama, Arizona, California, Delaware, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wyoming.
Mr. Jones said that he shared workers’ frustration over vaccines and that he was startled that Oklahoma had placed grocery workers in the same vaccination phase as workers at golf courses and photography studios.
“Society in general is giving a very mixed message, celebrating grocery workers as essential early in the pandemic and now, less than a year later, putting grocery workers at the end of the queue,” he said.
If DNA exonerates Sedley Alley, it could hasten an end to capital punishment.
By Emily Bazelon, Feb. 9, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/09/opinion/dna-death-penalty-sedley-alley.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage
Many people on death row in the United States have gone to their death protesting their innocence. In at least a dozen and a half cases, strong evidence supports such a claim, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. But to date, no case has emerged in which DNA or other evidence has provided definitive proof that the state executed an innocent person.
A case like that “could accelerate the end of the death penalty in America,” said Barry Scheck, a founder of the Innocence Project. Mr. Scheck teamed up last week with a prominent conservative litigator, Paul Clement, a former solicitor general for President George W. Bush, before the Tennessee Court of Criminal App on behalf of the estate of a Tennessee man, Sedley Alley, who was executed for a 1985 murder.
At the time of the killing, DNA testing was not yet part of criminal investigations. After the technology became widespread, a state appellate court refused Mr. Alley’s requests for testing of clothing and other items found at the crime scene. In 2011, the Tennessee Supreme Court rejected some of the lower court’s reasoning in the Alley case. But the ruling came too late for Mr. Alley. He was executed in 2006.
Will DNA testing that could prove Mr. Alley innocent be allowed? That’s what this case is about. On a night in July 1985, Suzanne Collins, a 19-year-old lance corporal in the Marine Corps, went running at about 10:30 p.m. outside the naval base where she lived in Shelby County, Tenn. Her body was found the next morning, naked and brutalized. Clothing that investigators presumed was worn by her assailant was nearby, including a pair of red men’s underwear.
Navy investigators pursued a lead from two Marines who reported crossing paths with Lance Corporal Collins while she was running. They said that moments after they saw her, they dodged a brown station wagon with a blue license plate, which swerved as it came from her direction. After midnight, law enforcement officers stopped Sedley Alley, then 29. He was driving a dark green station wagon with a blue plate. He lived on the base with his wife, who was in the Navy. Mr. Alley had been discharged from the military years earlier for drug and alcohol abuse.
When the investigators began interrogating him, Mr. Alley, who had been drinking, denied knowing anything about Lance Corporal Collins and asked for a lawyer. But 12 hours later, he signed a statement confessing to the murder. Mr. Alley’s admission, which he later said was false and coerced, did not match the physical evidence. He said he had hit Lance Corporal Collins with his car, then stabbed her with a screwdriver and killed her with a tree branch. But the location he gave for the collision didn’t line up with the witness accounts. And the autopsy report showed that Lance Corporal Collins was not hit by a car nor stabbed with a screwdriver.
Blood found on the driver’s door of the station wagon, in small streaks, was type O, a match for both Mr. Alley and Lance Corporal Collins. No fingerprints, hair or blood from the victim was found on Mr. Alley or inside his car. Tire tracks found at the crime scene didn’t match Mr. Alley’s car, shoe prints didn’t match his shoes, and a third witness who saw a man with a station wagon, close to where Lance Corporal Collins was killed, described someone who was several inches shorter than Mr. Alley, with a different hair color. Nonetheless, Mr. Alley was convicted and sentenced to death.
In the years following Mr. Alley’s sentencing, the use of DNA analysis by law enforcement became more common and increasingly important for solving crimes and also for calling into question past convictions. (They include those based on false confessions — 80 of about 370 exonerations since 1989, according to a database created by Brandon Garrett, a Duke University law professor.) DNA evidence also led to the exoneration of 21 people who served time on death row, according to the Innocence Project.
In 2001, Tennessee passed a law broadly instructing its courts to grant access to DNA testing if a petitioner shows a “reasonable probability” that he or she would not have been convicted in light of the DNA results. Mr. Alley and his new lawyers soon went to court to ask for DNA analysis of the crime-scene evidence. They argued in part that running that evidence through a public database might identify the real killer.
The Tennessee appeals court rejected Mr. Alley’s request for testing, saying he had failed to establish that “reasonable probability.” The court also rejected his argument for the crime scene DNA to be run through a public database to identify the real killer.
In a bizarre reading of the Tennessee DNA law, the appeals court said the law’s reach was limited to comparing the defendant’s DNA with samples of clothing and other evidence. The purposes of DNA testing “must stand alone,” the court said, “and do not encompass a speculative nationwide search for the possibility of a third-party perpetrator.” In other words, Mr. Alley was barred from DNA testing, even if it could exonerate him by identifying someone else as the person who killed Suzanne Collins.
Sedley Alley had a daughter named April. Her mother died when she was 4, and she grew up with her maternal grandparents, alienated from her father. In her 20s, Ms. Alley got in touch with her father in prison and started visiting him. Early on, she asked him if he had killed Lance Corporal Collins.
“I said, ‘I just want you to be honest with me and tell me the truth. It won’t stop me from coming to visit with you,” she told me over the phone this week. “He said, ‘April, if I did this, I don’t remember doing it. If it’s ever proven with DNA I did do this, I don’t want to fight my execution.’” He never wavered from that position.
In 2006, Mr. Alley was executed by lethal injection. In 2011, in another case in which a convicted man petitioned for DNA testing, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that the state’s DNA law does provide for establishing innocence by using the test results to identify “the true perpetrator of the crime.” The Tennessee App Court had been wrong to deny Sedley Alley’s petition for testing. Nationally, database hits of DNA evidence have identified the actual assailant in 139 exonerations, according to the Innocence Project.
In 2019, one of Sedley Alley’s lawyers, Kelley Henry, knocked on April Alley’s door. Ms. Henry had confirmed a tip to the Innocence Project that a man who had been arrested in a murder and two sexual assaults in St. Louis was suspected in other killings — and that shortly before Lance Corporal Collins’s death, he had been enrolled in a training course at the naval base where she also trained.
The information persuaded Ms. Alley to renew the petition for DNA testing in her father’s case. Her father’s life couldn’t be saved, but perhaps his reputation could be, she reasoned. As the representative of her father’s estate, she would stand in his shoes, legally speaking. She also felt a broader responsibility: If the man arrested in St. Louis was guilty of the Collins murder, “then those other people died or were hurt when they didn’t have to be,” she told me.
The district attorney in Shelby County, Amy Weirich, opposed Ms. Alley’s request for DNA testing. She declined to comment when I called her. But in a legal brief, the Tennessee attorney general’s office argued that “attacks on criminal judgments end with the death of the prisoner.” Ms. Alley’s legal team, led by Mr. Clement, Mr. Scheck and Stephen Ross Johnson, argue that it is “unconscionable,” given the history of the case, for prosecutors to oppose DNA testing “on the sole grounds that it has already executed Alley.”
The state won the first round when a state court judge ruled that Ms. Alley did not have standing to sue on her father’s behalf. On Wednesday, the state attorney general’s office defended that victory before a panel of three judges of the Tennessee Appeals Court. Andrew Coulam, the lawyer for the state, stressed the “right of the state and the right of victims” in final judgments.
Arguing for Sedley Alley’s estate, Mr. Clement responded that the interests of victims “are not served if the wrong person has been executed for a crime and the actual perpetrator is at large.” The judges could adopt the state’s conception of finality. Or they could decide that DNA testing is the only way to prevent doubt from lingering forever about who killed Suzanne Collins and whether Sedley Alley went to his death an innocent man.
And whether a killer walked away.
A link to the vaccines is not certain, and investigations are underway in some reported cases.
By Denise Grady, Feb. 8, 2021
One day after receiving her first dose of Moderna’s Covid vaccine, Luz Legaspi, 72, woke up with bruises on her arms and legs, and blisters that bled inside her mouth.
She was hospitalized in New York City that day, Jan. 19, with a severe case of immune thrombocytopenia — a lack of platelets, a blood component essential for clotting.
The same condition led to the death in January of Dr. Gregory Michael, 56, an obstetrician in Miami Beach whose symptoms appeared three days after he received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Treatments failed to restore his platelets, and after two weeks in the hospital he died from a brain hemorrhage.
It is not known whether this blood disorder is related to the Covid vaccines. More than 31 million people in the United States have received at least one dose, and 36 similar cases had been reported to the government’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, VAERS, by the end of January. The cases involved either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine, the only two authorized so far for emergency use in the United States.
But the reporting system shows only problems described by health care providers or patients after vaccination, and does not indicate whether the shots actually caused the problems.
Officials with the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that they were looking into the reports, but that so far, rates of the condition in vaccinated people did not appear higher than the rates normally found in the U.S. population, so the cases could be coincidental. Overall, the vaccines are considered safe. A small number of severe allergic reactions have been reported, but they are treatable, and the rates are in line with those reported for other vaccines, regulators say.
In a statement, Pfizer said: “We take reports of adverse events very seriously,” and added that it was aware of thrombocytopenia cases in vaccine recipients.
The statement also said: “We are collecting relevant information to share with the F.D.A. However, at this time, we have not been able to establish a causal association with our vaccine.”
Moderna also provided a statement, which did not address the question of the platelet disorder, but said the company “continuously monitors the safety of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine using all sources of data” and routinely shares safety information with regulators.
Hematologists with expertise in treating immune thrombocytopenia said they suspected that the vaccine did play a role. But they said that cases after vaccination were likely to be exceedingly rare, possibly the result of an unknown predisposition in some people to react to the vaccine by developing an immune response that destroys their platelets. The disorder has occurred, rarely, in people who received other inoculations, particularly the measles-mumps-rubella one.
“I think it is possible that there is an association,” Dr. James Bussel, a hematologist and professor emeritus at Weill Cornell Medicine who has written more than 300 scientific articles on the platelet disorder, said in an interview. “I’m assuming there’s something that made the people who developed thrombocytopenia susceptible, given what a tiny percentage of recipients they are.”
He added: “Having it happen after a vaccine is well-known and has been seen with many other vaccines. Why it happens, we don’t know.”
Dr. Bussel said it was important to share information about the cases, because severe thrombocytopenia can be serious, and physicians need to know how to treat it. Sometimes the condition resists standard therapies, and if very low platelet counts persist, the patient faces an increasing risk of severe bleeding and even brain hemorrhage.
He and a colleague, Dr. Eun-Ju Lee, have submitted an article to a medical journal on 15 cases in Covid vaccine recipients they identified by searching the government’s database or by consulting with other physicians treating patients. The report provides information about treatments and urges doctors to report cases. It also notes that it is too soon to tell whether the affected patients will have lasting recoveries, or recurrences of the platelet problem.
A few of the patients had previously had platelet disorders or other autoimmune conditions that might have made them vulnerable, Dr. Bussel (pronounced Bew-SELL) said. People can have low platelets without symptoms, and it is possible that in some, a vaccine reaction could drop the level further, to a point where it becomes apparent by causing bruises or bleeding, Dr. Bussel said.
He has been a paid consultant to Pfizer, not on vaccines but for a drug for the platelet disorder.
Dr. Jerry L. Spivak, an expert on blood disorders at Johns Hopkins University, also said the connection to the vaccine appeared real, but predicted that cases would be exceedingly rare and called them “idiosyncratic,” perhaps related to underlying traits in individual patients.
The cases are not a reason to avoid Covid vaccination, doctors say. The risk of serious illness from the coronavirus is much greater than the risk of developing this rare condition, and the vaccines are crucial for controlling the pandemic.
Ms. Legaspi’s daughter said the last thing that she and her mother wanted to do was create fear of the Covid vaccines. Both women still believe strongly in the need for them, despite Ms. Legaspi’s illness, her daughter said. The daughter asked, at her employer’s request, that her name not be used.
In its most common form, immune thrombocytopenia is an autoimmune disease that affects about 50,000 people in the United States, according to a support group for patients. The condition develops when the immune system attacks platelets or the cells that create them, for unknown reasons. It sometimes follows a viral illness, and can persist for months or become chronic and last for years. It is generally treatable. Professional groups have advised that patients with the disorder be vaccinated for Covid, but after consulting with their hematologists.
Ms. Legaspi was strong and in good health before receiving the Moderna vaccine. But when she was admitted to the city hospital in Elmhurst, Queens, her platelet count was zero. Normal readings range from 150,000 to 450,000, and anything under 10,000 is considered very dangerous and in urgent need of treatment.
Doctors ordered Ms. Legaspi to not even get out of bed without help, for fear that if she fell and injured herself she could hemorrhage. They began giving her the standard treatments, including platelet transfusions along with steroids and immune globulins meant to stop her immune system’s war on her platelets.
Nothing worked. Her platelets would rise a bit and then crash again between treatments.
As the days passed with no progress, Ms. Legaspi’s daughter, aware of Dr. Michael’s death, worried increasingly that her mother would suffer a brain hemorrhage.
“I don’t think she understands she’s like a ticking bomb,” the daughter said in an interview on Jan. 28, after her mother had been in the hospital for more than a week with no improvement. “I don’t use the term. I don’t want to tell her that.”
Ms. Legaspi, from the Philippines, speaks only some English, but understood that her condition was serious, said the daughter.
Dr. Bussel heard about her condition and, although he works at a different hospital, he called her doctor on Jan. 28 and offered to consult on Ms. Legaspi’s care. He also contacted Dr. Michael’s family to ask what treatments he had received — partly as a way of finding out what had not worked.
Dr. Michael’s death had come to public attention after his wife, Heidi Neckelmann, disclosed it on Facebook.
Ms. Neckelmann said in a text, “I am glad that Dr. Bussel reached out to me. I told my story with the intention of helping those in the same or similar situation.” She added: “I hope that other people can now benefit with Dr. Bussel’s experience. I wish my Gregory had had that chance.”
On Jan. 29, Dr. Bussel sent Ms. Legaspi’s physician, Dr. Niriksha Chandrani, an email labeled “my strong recommendations,” noting that he was “very afraid” Ms. Legaspi would have a brain hemorrhage, and advising a different course of treatment. Dr. Chandrani, the chief of oncology at Elmhurst, realized that Dr. Bussel was a leading authority on the platelet disorder, and she took his advice.
She had spent several sleepless nights worrying about Ms. Legaspi.
“I didn’t want her to die,” Dr. Chandrani said.
A day later, Ms. Legaspi’s platelet count had reached 6,000: “slow but steady progress,” Dr. Bussel said. The next morning, it was 40,000, which took her out of the highest danger zone. Two days later, on Feb. 1, it was 71,000.
It is impossible to tell whether the new treatments worked, if the initial ones kicked in or if she recovered on her own. But on Feb. 2, she went home from the hospital to the apartment in Queens that she shares with her daughter and 7-year-old grandson. On Feb. 4, her daughter said, Ms. Legaspi’s platelet count was 293,000.
Another vaccine recipient, Sarah C., 48, a teacher in Arlington, Tex., received the Moderna vaccine on Jan. 3. She asked that her full name not be used to protect her privacy.
Two weeks later, she began to have heavy vaginal bleeding. After two days she saw her obstetrician, who ordered blood work and scheduled other tests. A few hours later, he called and urged her to go straight to the emergency room. He was stunned and hoped it was a lab error, but her blood count showed zero platelets. She had had a checkup with completely normal blood-test results less than a week before being vaccinated.
The reading of zero platelets was not a lab error. The results were confirmed in the emergency room, and doctors there also noticed red spots on her wrists and ankles, caused by hemorrhages under the skin. Sarah C. had seen the spots, but ignored them.
She spent four days in the hospital, receiving platelet transfusions, immune globulins and steroids to restore her platelet count.
She described the experience as terrifying. “Especially when people say they’d never seen this before, that you could bleed out or hemorrhage,” she said. “That was the biggest concern, and just not knowing. The gentleman in Florida, he didn’t make it. Certainly the fear was there.”
Even so, she said: “I’m all for the vaccine. I had a terrible horrible reaction and just hope people are aware of what to do if something happens, to watch for these symptoms and get help immediately.”
If she had known enough to recognize the red spots and bleeding as danger signs, she said, she would have gone to the emergency room much sooner.
Recently, she received a notice saying it was time for her second shot of the Moderna vaccine. Her doctors have said she could go ahead and take it, but she decided to wait, though she said she did want another dose.
“I don’t know if I’ll do the same one,” she said. “Maybe a different one.”
As attorney general, William Barr rejected a plea deal days after Mr. Floyd died, worried in part of protesters calling it lenient. Derek Chauvin was set to plead guilty to third-degree murder.
By Tim Arango, Feb. 10, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/10/us/george-floyd-death.html?action=click&module=News&pgtype=Homepage
MINNEAPOLIS — It was three days after George Floyd died in police custody last May, and businesses in the Twin Cities were on fire. Police officers were shooting rubber bullets and tear gas to hold back protesters, their anger fueled by a cellphone video of Mr. Floyd, a Black man, gasping for breath under the knee of a white officer.
As soldiers prepared to take to the streets, the officer, Derek Chauvin, believed that the case against him was so devastating that he agreed to plead guilty to third-degree murder. As part of the deal, officials now say, he was willing to go to prison for more than 10 years. Local officials, scrambling to end the community’s swelling anger, scheduled a news conference to announce the deal.
But at the last minute, according to new details laid out by three law enforcement officials, the deal fell apart after William P. Barr, the attorney general at the time, rejected the arrangement. The deal was contingent on the federal government’s approval because Mr. Chauvin, who had asked to serve his time in a federal prison, wanted assurance he would not face federal civil rights charges.
An official said Mr. Barr worried that a plea deal, so early in the process and before a full investigation had concluded, would be perceived as too lenient by the growing number of protesters across America. At the same time, Mr. Barr wanted to allow state officials, who were about to take over the case from the county prosecutor who has had tense relations with Minneapolis’s Black community, to make their own decisions about how to proceed.
Now, in the lead-up to Mr. Chauvin’s trial, which is scheduled to begin with jury selection on March 8, there is great uncertainty about the case’s outcome and whether the proceedings could provoke more violence.
Some office workers in downtown Minneapolis have already been told not to come to work during the weekslong trial because of heavy security. The National Guard will be deployed, transforming the city center into a military zone, with Humvees and armed soldiers monitoring checkpoints. In his recent budget proposal, Gov. Tim Walz included a special $4.2 million item for security during the trial, as well as a $35 million fund to reimburse local law enforcement agencies that may be called upon to quell unrest.
“This is the most famous police brutality prosecution in the history of the United States,” said Paul Butler, a former prosecutor who is a professor at Georgetown University and an authority on police brutality.
In a country whose criminal justice system rarely holds police officers accountable for killing on the job — not in Ferguson, Mo., not in the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, not in the case of Eric Garner in New York — the trial of Mr. Chauvin is seen as a test of whether anything has changed. Mr. Chauvin, in widely seen cellphone video captured by a bystander, kept his knee on the neck of Mr. Floyd for more than nine minutes until he took his last breaths pushed against, in the words of a court filing, “the unforgiving concrete of Chicago Avenue.”
The trial may yet be delayed. The prosecution has asked an appeals court to put off the proceedings, citing the risk that the trial, with so many demonstrators likely to fill the streets, becomes a superspreader event during the coronavirus pandemic.
“This appeal involves a question of exceptional and unique importance in one of the highest-profile cases in our nation’s history,” reads the first sentence of the appellate brief filed by Keith Ellison, Minnesota’s attorney general, who is leading the prosecution.
The state is also appealing a decision by Judge Peter A. Cahill to separate the trial of Mr. Chauvin, who is charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter — the initial charge of third-degree murder was dropped — from the trial of three other former officers involved in Mr. Floyd’s death, two of whom were rookies with just a few days on the job.
The three ex-officers who were with Mr. Chauvin during Mr. Floyd’s final minutes — Thomas Lane, who held Mr. Floyd’s legs; J. Alexander Kueng, who was positioned on Mr. Floyd’s back; and Tou Thao, who held off angry bystanders — are scheduled to face trial on aiding and abetting charges in August.
Legal experts, and lawyers involved in the case, say that Judge Cahill’s decision to hold separate trials could benefit Mr. Chauvin — whose lawyer had pushed for a separate trial — because he will no longer have to face the possibility of the other three men pointing the blame at him.
In fact, that has already been playing out behind the scenes: Defense attorneys for those former officers have shifted from crafting strategies built on establishing the culpability of Mr. Chauvin to offering their help to his defense. If Mr. Chauvin were acquitted — a possibility that many officials fear could lead to more upheaval and second-guessing about the failed plea deal — the other three men would likely not face trial at all.
Mr. Floyd’s death forced a reckoning with racial injustice and police brutality that many felt was long overdue. Not since the civil rights movement of the 1960s had so many Americans taken to the streets to demand justice and equality. That it happened in the middle of a pandemic only added to the sense of magnitude.
Mr. Floyd died on Memorial Day after a store clerk called the police on him for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes. Soon, the impact of his death on the broader world will narrow — to a specially built courtroom, No. 1856, designed for social distancing at the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis.
At trial, the central question will most likely be the exact cause of Mr. Floyd’s death. The county medical examiner ruled the death a homicide caused by a combination of the officers’ use of force, the presence of fentanyl and methamphetamine in Mr. Floyd’s system and his underlying health conditions. But Mr. Chauvin’s defense strategy, which has emerged in numerous court filings from his lawyer, Eric Nelson, is centered on presenting medical evidence that Mr. Floyd died of a drug overdose.
“A lot of the defense strategy will look like a trial of George Floyd’s character,” Mr. Butler, the Georgetown professor, said.
In a series of motions filed this week, Mr. Nelson asked the court to allow testimony about Mr. Floyd’s drug use and to forbid anyone at trial from referring to Mr. Floyd as a victim.
Mr. Nelson declined to comment on the failed plea deal last year.
Lawyers and legal experts often bring up two of America’s most famous trials involving race and the police when asked to place the criminal cases arising from Mr. Floyd’s death in a historical context. One is the Rodney King case in Los Angeles in 1992, for its obvious parallels of white officers brutalizing a Black man. The other is the O.J. Simpson trial, which offers an example of how an emotional trial can become a televised spectacle.
Judge Cahill, citing the immense interest in the Chauvin case and the pandemic restrictions that will limit public attendance, has ruled that cameras will be allowed in the courtroom, a first in Minnesota.
Mr. Ellison has objected to cameras in the court, writing in a motion that “an innocent bystander who saw George Floyd’s murder does not deserve — absent his or her consent — to be rocketed onto the public stage.”
There are also persistent fears that the trial could attract white supremacists or other right-wing extremist groups to the city. Already, during pretrial hearings, lawyers for the defendants have been harassed; one man was arrested after managing to get a gun inside the courthouse.
Earl Gray, Mr. Lane’s lawyer, was in his office on a recent morning, explaining that Mr. Floyd’s drug use will probably be at the center of the case, when his phone rang. It was another in a stream of harassing phone calls he has been receiving for months.
“It’s a case where the politics are pretty tough,” he said matter-of-factly after hanging up.
Jurors will remain anonymous during the trial, and possibly sequestered. A questionnaire has been mailed to prospective jurors, asking them a number of questions, including their opinions on the Black Lives Matter movement and the effort to “defund the police,” a rallying cry of last summer’s social unrest, and whether they participated in any protests.
Seating an impartial jury could be the most vexing challenge of the entire proceeding, and three weeks have been scheduled just for picking a jury. After all, many here ask, who has not heard of the case and formed an opinion about it? And how will last summer’s unrest, and the expectation that an acquittal in the case would cause more demonstrations in their own city, weigh on the minds of jurors?
Aside from the snow on the ground and a naked Christmas tree, the only indication that almost a year has passed since Mr. Floyd was killed outside Cup Foods in South Minneapolis is a sign at the Speedway gas station across the street that changes each morning.
“GEORGE FLOYD TRIAL IN 28 DAYS,” it read on a recent day.
Eliza Wesley, known to the community around Cup Foods as “the gatekeeper” of George Floyd Square — anchored by a traffic roundabout transformed into a memorial, with a raised fist sculpture jutting skyward — has for many months taken care of the area and greeted visitors.
The countdown sign, she said, “is so we know exactly how many days to the trial, so we can be prepared. We want it to be peaceful. We don’t want white supremacists coming down here.”
Ms. Wesley said she had no doubt about the trial’s outcome, even as she worried that her city could once again be convulsed by unrest.
“I’m confident justice will be served,” she said. “There’s no way around that video. God allowed this to happen, so life can be changed and people can see what’s going on. George Floyd died for a purpose.”
“Please don’t do this to me,” the child said to an officer in Rochester, N.Y. “You did it to yourself, hon,” the officer replied.
By Ed Shanahan, Published Feb. 11, 2021, Updated Feb. 12, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/11/nyregion/rochester-police-pepper-spray.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage§ion=New%20York
A 9-year-old girl is in the back of a police car, handcuffed and crying after being pepper-sprayed amid a struggle with several officers who had been trying to detain her.
“Officer,” she says between sobs to a female officer in the front of the car, “please don’t do this to me.”
The officer’s matter-of-fact reply shows no sign of empathy.
“You did it to yourself, hon,” she says.
The exchange was included in extended police body-camera video of the Jan. 29 incident that Rochester, N.Y., officials released on Thursday, offering a fuller look at the troubling episode and touching off a fresh burst of fury over the officers’ treatment of a child in distress.
At an hour and a half, the footage was much longer than an 11-minute version made public shortly after the encounter, which has attracted international attention, widespread condemnation and growing calls for overhauling a police force that was already under scrutiny over the suffocation death of a Black man whose head officers had put in a hood.
In releasing the footage, Mayor Lovely Warren said city officials were “committed to being transparent and sharing all of the information and video regarding this incident.” The death in police custody of the man who suffocated, Daniel Prude, was not divulged for more than five months.
“I continue to share our community’s outrage for the treatment of this child,” Ms. Warren said.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo described the footage released on Thursday as “even more shocking and disturbing” than the earlier version. The incident, Mr. Cuomo said, was “symptomatic of a broader problem — the relationship between police and communities is damaged and needs to be fixed.”
The newly released footage shows several of the nine officers who ultimately responded to the scene repeatedly threatening the girl as they struggle to get her completely into the back of a police car. She is clearly in distress and yelling that she wants her father.
“Listen to me — you’re going to get sprayed if you don’t get in,” one officer says.
“Get in the car,” comes another command. “I’m done telling you.”
“I’m going to pepper-spray you, and I don’t want to,” one officer says. “So sit back.”
“Please don’t,” the girl says.
“This is your last chance, or pepper spray is going into your eyeballs,” an officer says.
A female officer tries to persuade the girl to get all the way into the car.
Soon, one officer, and then a second, can be heard saying, “Just spray her.” Seconds later, one of them does and then shuts the door as the girl screams, “My eye is bleeding.”
In the aftermath, the female officer sits in front of the car and tells the girl, “You did it to yourself.”
“It’s burning my eyes,” the girl says.
“That’s the point of pepper spray,” the officer says.
Donald Thompson, a lawyer for the girl's family, said the new video was “far more disturbing” than the earlier footage.
“The lack of humanity is amazing,” he said.
The Democrat and Chronicle, a Rochester newspaper, estimated that it had taken an ambulance about 15 minutes to arrive after the girl was pepper-sprayed and that it was 23 minutes before one of the handcuffs she had been placed in was removed.
In the footage, after the ambulance arrives, one officer tries to comfort the girl.
“I know it doesn’t seem like it right now, but you’re not in trouble right now,” he says.
The newly released video, which is drawn from the body-worn cameras of several officers and which blurs out the face of the girl and omits any commentary that would identify her or her family, captures much more of the events before and after the pepper-spraying.
The episode began with officers answering a call for “family trouble,” officials said. The new video starts with one officer taking a complaint from a woman about her boyfriend’s having driven off in her truck. The woman says that the man is abusive and that she is pregnant. At some point, she also says her daughter is suicidal and has threatened to harm her.
The officer’s attention turns to the girl, who has run off down a snow-covered street. She appears to be in distress, and he initially tries a gentle approach. He calls her “dear,” asks why she is upset and urges her to get out of the freezing cold.
Then, as the earlier video showed, the mother appears and chaos erupts, as she yells and moves to strike her daughter. The girl is crying and screaming.
As the altercation escalates, the officer seems taken aback. The tension mounts when the girl’s mother begins to yell at the driver of a passing vehicle, challenging the person to a fight.
By this point, the officer is struggling to get the girl into handcuffs.
“Wait, can you please go help my mom?” she yells. “She’s pregnant.”
The struggle that led to the pepper-spraying starts in earnest after that.
When the initial body-camera footage was released, Michael Mazzeo, the president of the union that represents Rochester’s police officers, defended the officers’ actions and said they had been confronted with a difficult situation. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
Willie Lightfoot, the vice president of the Rochester City Council, said that he had been “angered” by what the footage showed and that the officers involved in the incident should not be policing the city’s streets. One has been suspended, and two have been placed on leave.
“Those who act the way we see in that video should not be allowed to get a paycheck from these citizens,” Mr. Lightfoot said.
He also said he was troubled by something else the video shows: the officer who initially responded to the scene returning to the mother’s house and loudly confronting her over her confrontation with the passing vehicle. He dismisses her attempt at an apology.
“Now, I’ve got to do paperwork why I put down a 9-year-old girl on the ground,” he says, “and you’re fighting with someone in a van driving down the street.”
Mr. Lightfoot said that such an attitude showed a “disregard for humanity and dignity and respect.”
He noted that Rochester had taken steps in recent years to address problems with the Police Department, including the creation of an independent Police Accountability Board, and that more were in the works. Still, he sounded somewhat discouraged.
“Every time it seems like we are taking a step forward,” he said, “something else happens.”
For incarcerated people like me, access to communications comes at a steep price.
By John J. Lennon, Feb. 12, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/12/opinion/prison-internet-technology-jpay.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage
Mom will probably die before I get out of prison. Her Parkinson’s has advanced over the years, so she can’t visit. Until recently, I’d accepted that I’d never see her again. But lately, she’s been sending me 30-second videos: Mom and Magic, her fat, one-eyed black cat, showing me love through the seven-inch screen of a tablet made by a service provider called JPay. It costs her about a dollar to send each message; to me, they are priceless.
In 2019, JPay, which is owned by the prison communications firm Securus Technologies, gave more than 40,000 prisoners in New York State correctional facilities free tablets. The company also installed kiosks where we sync our devices to send and receive emails (and videos) and download purchased music, games and movies. The tablets were free, but we have to pay fees, sometimes steep ones, to access content and communicate on them. They brought us into the 21st century. But now Securus is facing challenges.
On Dec. 20, 2020, Worth Rises, an advocacy group, ran a full-page ad in The New York Times calling on Tom Gores, a businessman whose private equity firm owns Securus, to divest from the company. Beyond JPay, Securus owns phone contracts for many state prisons and county jails across the country. Charges can go as high as $14 for a 15-minute call. Worth Rises opposes any private companies that seek to profit from incarceration. “If Black Lives Matter, what are you doing about Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores?” the ad asked, calling him a prison profiteer.
Several years ago, I interviewed Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, about her work campaigning against commercial interests in prisons. I appreciated her passion. I reached out to her again recently and told her that the JPay technology was pretty life-changing in here. No one but JPay was stepping up to provide us this access to technology, I said. Ms. Tylek told me that it was all pretty complicated. “There’s no doubt that there’s a technology gap in prisons and jails,” she said, “But the travesty here is that government agencies are allowing corporations with a long history of predation to fill this gap, largely because they get a cut of the profit and access to data.”
I don’t pretend to ignore that Securus has some pretty indefensible pricing practices. But while its phone contracts have long stirred controversy, its JPay tablet program offers a window to the world, a tool to teach us, to inspire us, to build a network and career and to even earn income while in prison.
In 2001, I was a drug dealer, and I shot and killed a man in Brooklyn. I was 24 with a ninth grade education, and I wound up with 28 years to life. I’ve been in over 19 years. Today I’m a contributing editor for Esquire. Years ago in Attica, I learned my craft in a creative writing workshop. Until recently, I’d use a typewriter with a 7,000 character memory while listening to cassettes on my Walkman. I’d use snail mail or dictate timely pieces to my editors over the phone in the prison yard.
When the tablets came in a couple years ago, I could cut and paste. I had email. I started pitching more pieces, hitting more deadlines, doing more back-and-forth editing with colleagues as I’m doing right now in my cell, thumb-tapping a revision of this piece while jamming to my playlist.
Because of Covid-19, we’ve been on lockdown in New York’s prisons. Visits are suspended. We are in our cells 23 hours a day. In my facility, we get one hour of rec, eight people at a time in the cellblock common area, to shower, to use the phone, to sync our tablets on the kiosk.
Worth Rises argues that one in three families go into debt taking care of their incarcerated loved ones (though not all of that is spent on communication), and most of those carrying that burden are women of color. We on the inside need to bear some personal responsibility and make better choices. If our families are struggling, we should make fewer, shorter calls.
But Securus doesn’t exactly play fair, either. The company charges us egregious fees to put money into our prepaid phone accounts: My brother refills mine for me, and gets charged several dollars for every $50 he puts in — the maximum he can transfer in a single transaction. It’s my money, earned from freelancing, but it’s still a hassle for him. The transaction looks so irregular that Visa often emails my brother to see if his credit card was stolen. A spokeswoman from Securus wrote in an email, “Securus Technologies is working to make the tools incarcerated Americans and their loved ones use to stay connected as affordable and accessible as possible.”
Securus has provided a lot of free calls and JPay messages to incarcerated people in New York during the pandemic. We’re grateful for that and for Worth Rises’ advocacy.
The system is far from perfect. But without Securus, who will offer the same tablet technology and infrastructure? Not the government or nonprofits, at least not so far. Though even Mr. Gores said in an interview last week, “I think this industry really should be led probably not by private folks. I think it probably should be — I’ll get killed for saying this — but the nonprofit business, honestly.”
Ms. Tylek told me there is a tech nonprofit called Ameelio that is close to offering incarcerated people a communications product. But I don’t know if a service that is not driven by profit will be sustainable.
I argue that there is room for compromise. It’s important to understand how Securus technology has changed our lives. The best way to do that is for the company to hire incarcerated people, some of whom are brilliant and business-minded, as consultants. That would enable more people to earn income while incarcerated, as well.
The truth is, we are consumers in prison. I subscribe to the Sunday New York Times in print, for example, which costs me hundreds of dollars a year. Because the paper is pricey, I’m the only one who gets it, and there’s always a line in the cell block to read it after me. I love print — the texture, the smell — but I wish I had the option to subscribe on my tablet at the discounted digital rates available to the general public. Currently, we can only access news through an aggregated Associated Press news feed on JPay. According to a spokeswoman with Securus, the tablets don’t offer traditional WiFi access to news sites because of “security purposes.”
For now, at least, JPay gives us a crucial tether to our loved ones on the outside. I download a video message from Mom. Parkinson’s has progressed, contorting her movements and expressions. I smile and cry. “Come here, Magic. Let’s tell Johnny we love him.”
John J. Lennon is a contributing writer for The Marshall Project and a contributing editor for Esquire. He’s currently incarcerated in Sullivan Correctional Facility.
The region is warming much faster than much of the planet, and the consequences are already showing.
By Richard Silber and Liam Torpy, Feb. 11, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/11/opinion/climate-change-himalayas.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage
On Sunday, a glacier in the Indian Himalayas burst apart, releasing a torrential flood that destroyed one hydroelectric dam project and damaged another, killed at least 32 people and left nearly 200 people missing and likely dead. Half a world away, this event might seem easy to disregard as yet another distant catastrophe — tragic yet unrelated to our daily lives.
In the Western world, we should not be so sanguine. The disaster was a direct result of extreme climate change in the world’s highest mountains. The rapid warming there offers a warning of the potential consequences for the United States and the rest of the world as greenhouse gases continue to heat the planet.
Since taking office, President Biden has sought to reaffirm what scientists have been saying for decades: An effective climate response must be guided by strong research. As his administration works to restore scientific integrity in government and slow climate change, it should also support research in the Himalayas.
Logistical barriers facing scientists in these remote mountains have complicated research efforts. Much more needs to be done to monitor weather and ecological changes and disruptions to the water cycle resulting from global warming.
Like the Arctic and Antarctic poles, the Himalayas are warming much faster than other parts of the world, at a rate estimated to be up to three times the global average. Warming has been rapid over the past century. Though temperatures have varied depending on location, they have averaged 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit higher since 2000 compared with the 25-year period preceding it. The Himalayas thus offer a natural experiment: They are showing the havoc that can occur if we continue business as usual with greenhouse gas emissions.
Severe warming in parts of this towering mountain range, which stretches for 1,500 miles across Asia, from Pakistan to Bhutan, is demonstrating, for example, how climate change can drastically disrupt a region’s water cycle. Glaciers have lost mass and retreated significantly. Even moderate projections predict that the region’s massive ice flows will decline by approximately 60 percent by the end of this century, with a large number of glaciers disappearing outright.
Indeed, a recent assessment of warming by a group of scientists at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology warned that continued warming in the broader Hindu Kush Himalaya region, “will further exacerbate the snowfall and glacier decline leading to profound hydrological and agricultural impacts.” The region is home to the largest area of permanent ice cover outside the North and South poles.
Compounding this loss of freshwater, the dry season has been more arid and drought-like, while the monsoon season has brought more intense, destructive rainstorms that have increasingly caused flooding and fatal landslides.
All of these changes threaten the flow of the great rivers of Asia that are the primary water source for more than one billion people. They have brought particular upheaval to the approximately 240 million residents of the Hindu Kush Himalaya region. As ecosystems unravel, these people are struggling to adapt to changes that attack their livelihoods on all fronts.
Herders are suffering because warming is hurting productivity in already overgrazed rangelands that are producing less feed for livestock. Farmers are seeing crop failures because of drier conditions. Based on observations of forests in Europe, researchers would have predicted that the timberline would advance to those higher, cooler altitudes, as they have in other mountain ranges. But some forests in the Himalayas did the opposite, underscoring how hidden and chaotic variables can upend expectations.
Other uncertainties that require attention include how these miles-high mountains affect the path of the jet stream, which can have an outsize impact on the Northern Hemisphere; the pace and extent of melting permafrost, which releases greenhouse gases; the long-term impact of planetary warming on the seasonal monsoons of South Asia; and the geopolitical implications of food and water scarcity in a region where tensions already run high.
Researchers also have an opportunity to develop mitigation strategies usable elsewhere. For example, to prevent deadly floods caused by rapidly melting glaciers, international organizations have lowered the level of glacial lakes and created downstream warning systems. Some of these flood-prevention efforts have been successful; others have proved ineffective. Both outcomes have provided lessons with the potential to save limited funds and countless lives.
To face humanity’s greatest crisis, we must look across the planet to understand what may come next. In that spirit, long-term environmental research in the Himalayas is critical. When dealing with global climate change, the Himalayas are not as far away as they may seem.
Mr. Silber is the founder and executive director of the Himalayan Climate & Science Institute, where Mr. Torpy is the senior program director.
Huwe Burton was wrongly convicted because of deceptive interrogation techniques. How many more cases were “solved” the same way?
By Jan Ransom, Feb. 15, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/15/nyregion/3-detectives-obtained-a-false-murder-confession-was-it-one-of-dozens.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage
Huwe Burton poses for a portrait at Bryant Park in 2019.Elias Williams for The New York Times
“I just wanted it to be over,” Dennis Coss said about why he confessed after hours of interrogation to a crime he did not commit. Credit...Elias Williams for The New York Times
For Huwe Burton, the breaking point came late on the night of Jan. 5, 1989, as he sat with detectives in a cramped, windowless room on the second floor of a Bronx police precinct. He had not eaten or slept much in 48 hours.
A detective leaned in and said, “Tell us again about what happened that day.”
Mr. Burton, who was 16 then, repeated his story. He had come home two days earlier after spending the day at school and then at his girlfriend’s house, to find his mother, Keziah Burton, facedown on her bed, stabbed to death. Her nightgown was pulled up to her waist. A blue telephone cord was wrapped around her wrist.
What happened next in the interrogation room would reverberate in powerful ways over the coming decades. A false confession. An innocent man imprisoned for nearly 20 years. Serious questions about the tactics used by the three detectives involved in the investigation into Ms. Burton’s killing — and many others.
And now, a wide-ranging inquiry by the Bronx district attorney into whether the detectives’ tactics had tainted guilty verdicts in 31 homicide cases that relied on confessions.
The inquiry highlights how a new generation of prosecutors in New York and elsewhere is delving deeply into whether deceptive police interrogation tactics might have warped the criminal justice system through false confessions and wrongful convictions.
The examination comes after the emergence of hundreds of cases across the country in which people were sent to prison only to be exonerated later through the use of DNA or the discovery of new evidence.
Most of the Bronx cases being reviewed date to an era when violent crime in New York was at record highs. The police were under significant pressure to make arrests, especially in high-profile cases, and prosecutors faced similar demands to win cases they brought to trial.
But in some instances, the police and prosecutors moved too fast, made mistakes and ignored or withheld evidence that suggested they had the wrong person, exoneration experts say.
In Mr. Burton’s case, a judge exonerated him in his mother’s killing in 2019 after the Innocence Project, a nonprofit that investigates wrongful convictions, unearthed evidence not only that detectives used psychologically coercive techniques to get his confession, but that the prosecution had withheld evidence suggesting someone else was the killer.
That, and questions about other cases, prompted the Bronx district attorney, Darcel D. Clark, to order her office’s Conviction Integrity Unit to review dozens of other homicide investigations handled by the same detectives.
In a federal lawsuit filed in December, Mr. Burton accused the detectives of using lies, a false promise and a threat to persuade him to admit to something he had not done. He asserts that the detectives, to protect their reputations, and the prosecutor pressed ahead with the charges even after learning he had an alibi.
“Everybody got on board and thought it was a good idea to do this to a 16-year-old child after he had just lost his mom,” Mr. Burton said. “They chose to say ‘No, this is what we’re doing — we’re just going to lock him up.’”
The National Registry of Exonerations found that official misconduct played a role in the criminal convictions of more than half of 2,400 Americans who were exonerated between 1989 and 2019. For Black men wrongly convicted of murder, the proportion was 78 percent.
New York State has the third-highest exoneration rate — behind Illinois and Texas — and it ranks second for the number of convictions overturned because of a false confession, with 44 such cases since 1992, according to the registry.
Ms. Clark’s office will not release the names of the defendants in the cases being reviewed, but records show that the detectives in Mr. Burton’s case were involved in at least three other homicide cases that have been challenged in court.
The detectives — Stanley Schiffman, Sevelie Jones and Frank Viggiano — declined to be interviewed or did not respond to messages, but in past court proceedings Mr. Jones defended their handling of Mr. Burton’s confession and claimed it was spontaneous and credible.
A lawyer for Mr. Viggiano, Kyle Watters, said his client denied wrongdoing. Asked about the review, Mr. Viggiano said, “I don’t think it’s fair at all.”
Ms. Clark, who sought to overturn Mr. Burton’s conviction, has defended the work of the detectives, two of whom later worked for the Bronx district attorney’s office as investigators.
“What they did was not necessarily wrong — that is the way things were done then,” Ms. Clark said in 2019 shortly after Mr. Burton’s exoneration. “For 1989, that was standard practice for the N.Y.P.D., but now we know better.”
Lawyers for Mr. Burton, however, likened the detectives on his case to Louis Scarcella, a Brooklyn homicide detective who has been linked to several wrongful convictions, and whose tactics led to a review of 70 murder cases. At least eight convictions have been overturned at the request of the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.
“The question that should be on everyone’s mind is how many other people were coerced into falsely confessing by these detectives and continue to languish behind bars?” said Susan Friedman, an Innocence Project lawyer who worked on Mr. Burton’s case.
With a woman dead, police turn to her teenage son
The events that led up to Mr. Burton’s confession are detailed in his lawsuit and in other court filings related to his exoneration.
Two days after Mr. Burton’s mother was killed, the detectives arrived at a house where he was staying with his godmother and asked him to come to the 47th Precinct for a polygraph, he said in his lawsuit. When he arrived, however, he realized that the request was a ruse to get him to the police station without a guardian.
Mr. Burton did not know he had become the prime suspect after a teacher mistakenly told the investigators he had missed a morning class the day of the killing. (The teacher later said he had actually been in school.)
The detectives thought the killer was “an insider” who had staged the crime scene, according to court papers filed to vacate Mr. Burton’s conviction.
The contents of Ms. Burton’s purse were scattered on the floor and her car was missing, but there was no evidence of rape or of a struggle, the papers said. Ms. Burton’s husband was in Jamaica at the time.
Two hours into the roughly six-hour interrogation, Detective Viggiano started to bluff the teenager, pretending there was evidence that he was the killer, Mr. Burton and his lawyer in the federal suit, Jonathan C. Moore, said.
In an interview, Mr. Burton recalled breaking into tears and crying out: “I didn’t kill my mom.”
It is not illegal in New York for the police to deceive suspects about evidence to get a confession. Although state courts have thrown out some confessions obtained through such tactics, they have not banned the practice.
Mr. Burton said in an interview and in court papers that Detective Viggiano had warned him that if he did not confess to the killing, he could still go to prison for the statutory rape of his girlfriend, who was 13, and that rapists were abused in prison.
If he confessed, the detectives said, his mother’s death would be treated as an accident in Family Court and he would be released to his father, Mr. Burton said.
“I said, ‘What do I have to say?’” Mr. Burton recalled in an interview. Then, he said, the detectives began to feed him a story, asking repeatedly: “At this point you did this?” He said he responded with “yes” and “no.”
Later, he said, they had him write down his statement and make a videotaped confession.
“The state of mind I was in,” Mr. Burton recalled, “finding my mother in that state, trying to process that — if they said, ‘We want you to say you were responsible for the assassination of J.F.K.,’ everything they told me to say, I would have.”
Instead of being taken to Family Court, Mr. Burton was paraded past a phalanx of flashing cameras and news reporters as he entered Bronx Criminal Court to be charged with murder as an adult.
Another theory of the murder
Nearly a week later, the police stopped Emanuel Green, who lived downstairs from the Burtons, for running a red light in Mount Vernon, N.Y., just north of the Bronx, according to court filings. He was driving Ms. Burton’s car.
Around the same time, Mr. Burton’s teacher came forward to say she had made a mistake by overlooking his name on the attendance record, the filings said.
Questioned by Detective Viggiano, Mr. Green denied participating in the murder, but he claimed to have helped Mr. Burton cover it up and had suggested making it look like a home invasion, according to court papers. He told the police he had been trying to sell the car for Mr. Burton.
In his lawsuit, Mr. Burton says the detectives failed to do a criminal-background check on Mr. Green, who was on parole and had been convicted of rape and attempted armed robbery.
During the rape, the lawsuit says, Mr. Green used a steak knife that he carried in his sock to threaten the victim, the same sort of knife the detectives determined had been used to kill Ms. Burton.
Mr. Green and his longtime partner, Stacey Blocker, had moved into their first-floor apartment just a month earlier and had been accused of assaulting their previous landlord, the suit says. They initially claimed they were at work at the time of the murder, but detectives later learned that was not true, according to the suit.
Mr. Green was murdered in an unrelated personal dispute before Mr. Burton’s trial and never testified.
Mr. Burton’s trial lawyer, William Kunstler, was never told about Mr. Green’s criminal record, nor was he made aware that Mr. Burton’s teacher had come forward to say he was in school that morning, the lawsuit said.
The Bronx district attorney’s office, in its motion to vacate Mr. Burton’s conviction, said there was no proof that the prosecution withheld evidence from the defense.
The prosecutor, Elisa Koenderman, who is now an acting State Supreme Court justice in Queens, did not respond to an interview request. A spokesman for the state court system said the judge could not comment because of the pending lawsuit.
Although Mr. Burton recanted his confession before trial, Justice Dominic Massaro allowed it into evidence, and a jury convicted him. He served nearly 20 years in prison before being paroled in 2009.
His father, Raphael, an interior and exterior designer, spent his money on legal expenses fighting for his son’s release, Mr. Burton said. He died in 2005, penniless.
The three detectives had worked together in the 47th Precinct, which covered the northern section of the Bronx, in the late 1980s and early 1990s during a crack cocaine epidemic that fueled the worst murder wave in the city’s history. Their work put dozens of people in prison.
The former president of their union, Michael J. Palladino, described them in an interview as “impeccable investigators who took pride in their work and cared about the community they served.”
Mr. Viggiano was the sergeant-in-command of the precinct’s detective squad. He once said colleagues called him “Father Frank” because of his uncanny ability to get tight-lipped suspects to confess.
He left the Police Department in 1992 and then worked as an investigator for the Bronx district attorney’s office until he retired in 2009.
Mr. Viggiano, 74, has no regrets about Mr. Burton’s conviction, his lawyer, Mr. Watters, said.
Mr. Viggiano also disputes Mr. Burton’s recollection of the interrogation. The former detective denies that he was present or that detectives lied to Mr. Burton or threatened to arrest him for rape, Mr. Watters said. (The interrogation was not recorded.)
Mr. Schiffman, now in his 80s, joined the department in 1962, and was known as a standup interrogator, a grandfatherly detective who used lighthearted banter and jokes to get confessions.
“I’ve always played ‘the good cop,’” Mr. Schiffman told the Daily News in 2000, the year he quit the force. “You make friends with a guy, you tell him jokes, you try to give him some out, some excuse as to why he did it — I call it the ‘Schiffman Shuffle.’”
He later went to work for the district attorney’s office, eventually taking a leave of absence in 2019 when the review of his cases started.
The third detective, Mr. Jones, now in his 70s, was a seasoned officer on the same squad who spent time as an undercover officer arresting street-level drug dealers. He retired in 1992.
‘I just wanted it to be over’
A review of another case that unfolded around the same time casts further doubt on the three detectives’ conduct.
According to court papers, the Conviction Integrity Unit found that three months before Mr. Burton’s arrest, the detectives had used similar techniques to persuade Dennis Coss and Kelvin Parker to confess to taking part in a murder they later said they had nothing to do with.
In an interview, Mr. Coss said he was 19 and high on crack when was arrested in a stolen van in October 1988 and detectives interrogated him about the murder of a grocery store security guard five months earlier.
The detectives had a theory, court records showed: Mr. Coss, Mr. Parker and a third man, Robert Amonte, had killed the guard while they were burglarizing the store for money to buy crack. The police had found a woman who identified Mr. Amonte in a lineup — incorrectly, it turned out — as a man she had seen on the store’s roof just before the burglary, according to transcripts of pretrial testimony.
During the interrogation, Mr. Coss said, the detectives suggested to him that he had waited in the van while Mr. Amonte, with Mr. Parker’s help, entered the store through a roof vent. Mr. Amonte had then allegedly killed the guard with a crowbar. They also said, falsely, that Mr. Amonte’s fingerprints were on the murder weapon.
After hours of interrogation, Mr. Coss was hungry, scared and desperate to see his family, he said. Mr. Viggiano promised to help him with his drug addiction and said he could go free if he would say that Mr. Amonte killed the guard. Mr. Coss broke down and agreed.
“I thought I had nothing to do with this and I am going to sign this and I’m going to walk out of here,” Mr. Coss, now 51, said. “I just wanted it to be over.”
The detectives also lied to Mr. Parker, telling him that Mr. Coss and Mr. Amonte had implicated him and promising that he could go home if he cooperated, according to a pretrial hearing transcript.
“I was under the impression that I had no choice but to go along with the police because I was going to get blamed for the crime,” Mr. Parker testified.
Later, the detectives learned that Mr. Amonte had been in a Westchester County, N.Y., jail when the killing occurred. The charges against him were dropped. Mr. Coss and Mr. Parker also said that they had not met each other until two months after the murder.
Bronx prosecutors took the case to trial anyway on the theory that Mr. Coss and Mr. Parker knew the killer’s true identity.
A jury acquitted them in an hour.
By then, however, the two had spent nearly three years at Rikers Island, the city’s jail complex. Mr. Coss had been in fights with armed inmates, had been held in solitary confinement for a month and had contemplated suicide. “The system — it’s not working for us,” he said.
Mr. Parker also struggled to cope with what happened, his family said. He died of cardiac arrest in 2009.
Over the years, other men whom the detectives put in prison have challenged their convictions unsuccessfully.
Jose Felton, who was convicted of murder in 1982, claimed that Mr. Viggiano gave him wine and beer during his interrogation; a judge upheld his conviction.
Shane Watson, who was convicted of murder in 1993, said in court papers that detectives, including Mr. Jones, had coerced eyewitnesses into identifying him as a gunman who shot and killed a man two years earlier on Schieffelin Avenue in the Bronx. One witness later recanted; others later said they had never seen the gunman’s face.
Mr. Watson’s conviction is being reviewed by the district attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit.
Gina Mignola, the deputy general counsel who oversees the unit, said her team faced a difficult task.
“These cases are older cases, they’re decades old,” Ms. Mignola said, “Finding the cases, finding the people — it’s going to be a challenge.”
The United States doesn’t just bomb its enemies. It chokes them.
By Peter Beinart, Feb. 15, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/15/opinion/us-sanctions.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage
“It is past time,” Joe Biden pledged last year, “to end the forever wars.” He’s right. But his definition of war is too narrow.
For decades, the United States has supplemented its missile strikes and Special Operations raids with a less visible instrument of coercion and death. America blockades weaker adversaries, choking off their trade with the outside world. It’s the modern equivalent of surrounding a city and trying to starve it into submission. Wonks call this weapon “secondary sanctions.” The more accurate term would be “siege.”
America launched its first post-Cold War siege in 1990, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. For the next 13 years, Iraq — which before the war had imported roughly 70 percent of its food and medicine — needed United Nations approval to legally import anything. Claiming that everything from water tankers to dental equipment to antibiotics might have military use, Washington used its muscle at the U.N. to radically restrict what Iraq could buy. In her book, “Invisible War,” the Loyola University professor Joy Gordon notes that between 1996 and 2003, Iraq legally imported only $204 per person in goods per year — half of the per capita income of Haiti. After resigning to protest sanctions in 1998, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Denis Halliday, warned, “We are in the process of destroying an entire society.”
The U.N. ended its blockade of Iraq when the United States invaded in 2003. Since then, Washington has often claimed to employ “targeted” sanctions, which restrict arms sales or penalize only specific officials or companies, not entire populations. And in some instances, the sanctions are indeed targeted. But in the case of a few select foes — Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Cuba and Syria — the United States has initiated or intensified sieges that contribute to the same kind of misery experienced in Iraq.
The justifications for these sieges vary: nuclear proliferation, terrorism, violations of human rights. The method, however, is similar: “secondary sanctions.” The United States doesn’t just blacklist individuals, businesses, government institutions or even entire sectors of an adversary’s economy, which can be damaging enough. It tells foreign banks and corporations to do so as well — or else be barred from doing business with the United States.
The penalties for violating America’s secondary sanctions can be stunningly harsh. After charging the French bank BNP Paribas with flouting American sanctions laws, prosecutors in 2014 forced the bank to pay almost $9 billion in fines.
In theory, these sanctions — like the embargo against Iraq in the 1990s — contain exemptions for humanitarian goods. But, in practice, as Human Rights Watch has detailed, the exemptions are often murky and cumbersome. To avoid running afoul of American law, many foreign banks and businesses cease trading with besieged countries altogether.
In 2018, the Los Angeles Times reported that one of Syria’s largest public hospitals was struggling to buy spare parts for its MRI machines and CT scanners because, as a U.N. report concluded, “private companies are unwilling to jump the hurdles necessary to ensure they can transact with Syria without being accused of inadvertently violating” American and other sanctions. Last spring, as the coronavirus raged out of control in Iran, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut warned that sanctions were “making it very hard, if not impossible, for medical supplies to reach” that country as well. In 2019, a California-based charity complained that it could not send wheelchairs, crutches or canes to North Korea.
Again and again, human rights groups like Amnesty International and humanitarian organizations like UNICEF have denounced America’s blockades. In 2019, the United Nations General Assembly condemned the United States’ embargo against Cuba by a vote of 187 to 3. In Washington, however, these sieges are cause less for shame than for self-congratulation since they signal America’s opposition to oppressive governments.
The problem with this moral logic is that besieging an oppressive regime usually harms not the oppressor but the oppressed. In a 2019 study, the economists Antonis Adam and Sofia Tsarsitalidou found that when the United States sanctions an autocratic government, civil liberties get worse. A 2020 article in the Journal of Development Studies found that both American and United Nations sanctions lead to lower life expectancy. As the political scientists Dursun Peksen and Cooper Drury have explained, dictators respond to embargoes by hoarding scarce resources, and using them to reward their cronies and starve their opponents, thus further entrenching their power. “They think they are hurting President Maduro,” a Venezuelan woman whose child couldn’t get epilepsy medicine told the German publication Deutsche Welle in 2019, “and they’re really hurting the people.”
America’s sieges might be more defensible — or at least briefer — if they stood a reasonable chance of success. The sanctions on Iran that the United States and the U.N. imposed during Barack Obama’s presidency harmed ordinary Iranians. But their intent was to convince Iran’s government to compromise on its nuclear program, not utterly capitulate, or give up power. And, arguably, they helped achieve that relatively modest goal.
By contrast, none of America’s current sieges are married to remotely realistic objectives. Despite America’s efforts to oust them, Mr. Maduro and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria are more firmly in control today than when the United States imposed its harshest sanctions. After more than a decade of escalating punishments aimed at pressuring North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, that nation possesses as many as 60 of them. Iran is closer to the bomb than it was when the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign began, and just as influential across the Middle East.
Despite this, America’s other forever war retains substantial bipartisan support. That’s especially true in Congress, where politicians who have lost their appetite for deploying troops see an apparently cost-free way to signal their opposition to repressive and adversarial governments — and don’t care if the real costs are borne by the suffering people they claim to support.
To its credit, the Biden administration is reviewing whether sanctions are “unduly hindering responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.” But the agony caused by America’s sieges didn’t begin when the virus hit, and won’t end when it passes.
Mr. Biden wants to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal, which would entail lifting nuclear sanctions on Tehran. However, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has promised that America’s numerous non-nuclear sanctions will remain. He has called the 2019 law that threatens foreign companies doing business in Syria with secondary sanctions a “very important tool.” He’s proposed that the United States “more effectively target” sanctions on Venezuela, yet suggested that America’s siege of North Korea — which has forced multiple international charities to leave the country — isn’t tough enough.
Why are policies that have proved so ineffective and immoral so hard to undo? Because abandoning them would require admitting hard truths: North Korea will not abandon its nuclear weapons. Iran will remain a regional power. Mr. Assad, Mr. Maduro and the Communist government in Havana aren’t going anywhere. America’s leaders would rather punish already brutalized populations than concede the limits of American power.
But by deluding themselves about the extent of America’s might, they are depleting it. A key source of America’s power is the dollar, which serves as the reserve currency for much of the globe. It’s because so many foreign banks and businesses conduct their international transactions in dollars that America’s secondary sanctions scare them so much. But the more Washington wields the dollar to bully non-Americans into participating in our sieges, the greater their incentive to find an alternative to the dollar. The search for a substitute is already accelerating. And the fewer dollars non-Americans want, the harder Americans will find it to keep living beyond their means.
Ideally, America would stop besieging weaker nations because it hurts them. Unfortunately, we’re unlikely to stop until it hurts us.
Mr. Beinart is a contributing Opinion writer who focuses on American foreign policy and politics.