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.
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 email@example.com
- 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:
- Grand Juries: Slideshow
Movement for Black Lives Legal Resources
“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.
Our country has struggled to reckon with the horrors of the past. Could DNA tests help?
By Libby Copeland, Feb. 16, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/16/opinion/23andme-ancestry-race.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage
The consumer genetics testing company 23andMe this month announced that it is going public through a merger with a company founded by the billionaire Richard Branson, in a deal that valued it at $3.5 billion. This was just the latest big deal for the industry: Last year, the Blackstone Group acquired a majority stake in Ancestry, a 23andMe competitor, for $4.7 billion.
These investments are happening as the possibilities contained in our DNA have become more tangible and immediate — both in terms of our aspirations for the future, and our understanding of the past.
The debate around race consuming America right now is coinciding with a technological phenomenon — at-home genetic testing kits — revealing many of us are not who we thought we were. Some customers of the major DNA testing companies, which collectively have sold 37 million of these kits, are getting results that surprise them.
Perhaps they or a parent was adopted or donor-conceived and never told, or their families hid their genetic ancestries as an escape from discrimination. Maybe Dad isn’t their dad, genetically speaking, or they have a sister they never knew about. Some people are discovering their ancestors were Black, or Jewish. Others are learning their African-American lineages contain more European ancestry than they thought.
Our country, riven by wounds old and new over centuries of racist mistreatment, hasn’t figured how to acknowledge the full horrors of the past and all the ways those horrors continue. The images from the Capitol Hill incursion drove that home: Violent white invaders were met with a more acquiescent police reception than peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters had months earlier; a rioter carried a Confederate flag through the Capitol building, while a noose hung outside.
Despite the reductionism that sometimes frames discussions of the “ethnicity estimates” that the genetic testing industry offers customers — Ancestry, for instance, is responsible for a disturbing ad relying on ethnic tropes and yoking genes to greatness, attributing a figure skater’s “grace” to her Asian heritage, and her “precision” to her Scandinavian roots — this moment may offer us an important opportunity to grapple with the blunt facts of our nation’s history. After all, to heal from the past, we first have to be willing to see it for what it was.
A Black graduate student I interviewed, who is descended from a white slave owner and an enslaved woman, was able to use DNA results and research to determine the likely identity of this slave owner and to connect with a white cousin who also descended from him.
“I feel like it’s a little bit more awkward for her because she hadn’t known about us,” the graduate student said of this white cousin. “We kind of just appeared out of nowhere, and I’m pretty sure that’s not what she was banking on.”
Recent research conducted by 23andMe demonstrates how America’s brutal history is revealed through our genes. While the majority of enslaved people brought to the Americas were male, the study found enslaved women had a disproportionate impact on the gene pool of their descendants, evidence of the systematic rape and sexual exploitation of enslaved Black women. “Our genes tell a story that’s unflinching,” said Anita Foeman, a professor at West Chester University who studies people’s experiences with consumer DNA testing.
A 23andMe study from 2015 revealed that close to 4 percent of the company’s customers who identified as white Americans had at least 1 percent African ancestry, consistent with an African ancestor within the last 11 generations or so. About 12 percent of whites from Southern states like South Carolina and Louisiana had 1 percent or more of African ancestry.
The Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. has calculated that there are millions of contemporary whites who, “according to the old, notorious ‘one- drop rule’ of the Jim Crow era, would have been considered legally ‘black’” — proof not only of the absurdity of that definition of difference, he writes, but of the power of modern science to blow up false narratives about race and about American history. If modern DNA tests had existed during the heyday of mainstream eugenics in the early 20th century, Dr. Gates and others have suggested, they might have served as direct repudiation of that pseudoscience.
So, what happens when Americans learn about the diversity within themselves? The jury is still out on whether direct-to-consumer genetic testing reinforces our sense of immutable racial categories or breaks them down.
Research by Wendy Roth, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has found that customers’ basic knowledge of genetics going into testing may play a role in whether tests accentuate or reduce their racial essentialism. Besides, we are not our “ethnicity estimates”: For a variety of reasons, including the ways in which we’re shaped by community, family and personal experience, DNA and identity are not the same.
But what’s clear from research and from my conversations with hundreds of consumers is that genetic revelations can inspire journeys of self-discovery, helping people rewrite their understandings not only of their families but of their orientations as Americans.
Some people I spoke with recounted how they’re thinking long and hard, for the first time, about what boxes to check on medical forms asking for race. Some have legally changed their names to reflect their forebears. Others are using research to illuminate the lives of ancestors in Africa before the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
One man I interviewed discovered through DNA and genealogy that his grandfather was Black, and that his mother claimed fictional Sicilian heritage to protect her family from the discrimination she’d experienced growing up. He has spent the years since researching the Vermont community where his mom grew up, meeting his Black relatives, and rethinking his place in America. The truth about the past is so important, he told me — without it, “We can’t evolve.”
But we are evolving. We can’t help it, and this age of genetic reckoning, fueled by the extraordinary growth of DNA testing companies, is just one of many reasons for that.
The past is still with us — inside of us — for anyone who cares to look.
Ms. Copeland is the author of “The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are.” She has written about the consumer genetics testing industry for the Washington Post, Time and Slate.
Entrapping debtors betrays the American idea. It must end.
By Gene B. Sperling, Feb. 16, 2021
While controversial calls to “defund the police” have grabbed headlines, we urgently need to examine how we fund the police today. The increasing use of excessive fees, fines, and surcharges to fund parts of our criminal justice system is creating punitive debt traps for millions of low-income Americans leaving prison. Many find themselves in an economic prison: prevented from paying down their debts by the debts themselves. Others are so entrapped that they are actually reincarcerated for unpaid debt. Either way, they are denied the dignity of a real second chance — and a fresh start to pursue one’s purpose and to contribute to family, community and country.
Criminal justice debt has garnered growing attention — including today in Florida, where unpaid fees and fines are being used to deny those with a past felony the ability to vote. But what has gotten inadequate attention is the increasing role these fees play in funding our courts and police departments, and how they crush the chances of millions of Black and brown Americans to make a better life for themselves and their families, through what can be seen, figuratively and literally, as new debt prisons.
The fact that 21st-century America is recreating any form of debt prison is painfully ironic from a historical perspective. The United States was, after all, the first major nation to get rid of debt prisons in the 1820s and 1830s and embrace “fresh starts” for bankrupts at a time when “debtors were imprisoned in every country in Europe except Portugal,” according to historian Jill Lepore. Alexis de Tocqueville was to later note that this willingness to not see bankrupts as forever “disgrace[d] made Americans differ, not only from the nations of Europe, but from all the commercial nations of our time.”
This movement reflected a powerful American ideal: It was wrong to permanently shackle a person’s productive potential. As the economic historian Bradley Hansen writes, many came to believe “a fresh start was not only fair but in the best interest of society,” as it promoted both individual dignity and economic growth. “Burdened with debts that they had no hope of paying,” writes Hansen, insolvent debtors “had no incentive to be productive … Freed from these debts they could once again become productive members of society.”
This commitment to second chances has been a noble American ideal. It’s also, however, a part of what Martin Luther King Jr. would call an uncashed “promissory note” that the U.S. has brutally denied to African-Americans. Painfully, the re-emergence of the debt prison compounds these past wrongs. It disproportionately denies economic dignity to millions of Black Americans — many already unfairly entangled in the criminal justice system — and betrays the American ideal of second chances.
The Rise of Fines and User Fees:
How did these new debt prisons emerge gradually, in plain sight? Since the late 1980s, state and local governments have been increasing fines for minor infractions and what one could think of as ‘punitive user fees’ for court costs, incarceration, and probation as they faced the budgetary pressure of a growing criminal justice system. By 2012, these fees brought in over $15 billion a year. That year, revenue from fines and forfeitures combined were equivalent to 15 percent of law enforcement operating costs — and a third of expenses for one in 10 police departments, according to the Brookings Institution.
Since 2008, nearly every state has increased or added new criminal and civil court fees, as the Brennan Center reports. Additionally, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found a clear relationship between budgetary need and excessive fees: 92 of the 100 municipalities that collected the most in fees had local courts that partially or fully funded themselves.
In some places, fines and fees make up an even larger share of local government revenues. One percent of counties took in the equivalent of 90 percent of operating law enforcement budgets in fines and forfeitures in 2012. Georgetown, La., for example, collected 92 percent of its general revenues in fines in 2018.
Most people are probably unaware of the breadth of punitive user fees that Americans are saddled with when they go through our criminal justice system.In North Carolina, as of 2019, people were charged $10 per day in jail, and faced a $600 crime lab fee if their case had forensics, and an additional $600 fee if an expert witness testifies. That was on top of a $173 fee for appearing in criminal court. In 2014, NPR found that in over 40 states defendants can be billed for services that might include a public defender, room and board for time in jail and prison, their own probation and parole supervision, and even court-required electronic monitoring devices.
The fees do not stop even as people are trying to right their lives. Every probation system in the country has underlying costs that add to the financial strain on the 3.5 million Americans in the system. This makes it harder to stay out of jail or prison. For example, courts often require that probationers and parolees pay for frequent drug tests, costly electric monitoring, and expensive classes.
Cindy Rodriguez, for example, is a disabled, middle-aged woman in Tennessee who was arrested on a charge of shoplifting in 2014. She followed her public defender’s advice, pleaded guilty, and accepted probation. Her probation lasted nearly a year under the supervision of a private probation contractor. The company charged her $35-45 a month and $20 for each randomly administered drug test, on top of the $578 she owed the court. She had to sell her van to keep up with these payments and lost her apartment. Still, she was booked into jail for owing money.
Deepening Racial Bias in the Criminal Justice System:
This method of funding law enforcement only magnifies the systemic racial discrimination in our criminal justice system. This was seen starkly in Ferguson, Mo. The Department of Justice found that the city’s predatory practices against its Black residents were driven by a toxic combination of explicit racial prejudice and callous fiscal manipulation. In 2013, city officials expanded the use of fines to the equivalent of half of its police budget. Ninety-two percent of Ferguson’s court warrants, almost exclusively used to compel fee payments, were against Black residents.
Study after study confirms that Ferguson is far from the exception. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found in 2017 that “municipal fee targeting tends to aggregate in communities of color,” whose governments use “law enforcement as ticketing and collections agencies to increase municipal revenues as distinct from focusing on public safety and civil compliance.” A nationwide study of over 9,000 cities found that cities with the largest share of Black residents collect over five times as much in fines and fees per capita as the cities with the smallest share of Black residents. In places where police can keep seized property, the negative racial impact is even worse. A nationwide study revealed that where police departments are allowed to permanently seize property, budget shortfalls lead to major increases in Blacks and Latinos experiencing arrests and property seizures for D.U.I.’s and drugs offenses, while the treatment of whites remains largely unchanged.
Economically Imprisoning People in Debt:
This increasing use of punitive user fees now traps millions in debt. Millions of Americans collectively owe tens of billions in unpaid court debt; Sociologist Alexes Harris found in 2014 that about 80 to 85 percent of inmates were leaving prison owing money, often a significant amount.
And like payday lending, this debt is designed to accumulate. States often impose “poverty penalties,” including late fees, interest charges as high as 12 percent, and collection fees. Florida and Tennessee assign unpaid criminal justice debt to private collection firms, and allow them to add a 40 percent collection fee. Most people getting out of prison cannot afford these costs. Nearly half of ex-prisoners have zero reported earnings in the year after their release. Those that do find a job take home a median of about $10,000, thousands less than the typical cost of a conviction.
All these steep costs compound and pile up, creating multiple barriers to a fresh start and a second chance.
First, when private debt collectors get criminal debts converted into civil judgments it can lead to lower credit scores. This makes it harder to find housing, buy a car, and get a job. Second, the vast majority of states suspend licenses for failure to pay court debt — even though being able to drive is often essential for getting a job, getting to work on time — and yes, paying back criminal justice debt. Forty-one states suspend or keep people from renewing their driver’s license for owing court debt, according to Free to Drive. There are from seven million to 11 million Americans with suspended licenses as a result of traffic and court debt. A Rutgers University study found that 42 percent of New Jersey residents who had their licenses suspended lost their job. Forty-five percent of those who became unemployed couldn’t find another job, and 88 percent of those who found another job reported earning less than in their previous job.
Third, criminal justice debt can deny those leaving prison from attaining the occupational licenses that one in four jobs require for a new occupation and career. Take Jackie, a mother of three, and a trained nursing assistant. Her $800 in debt stood in the way of clearing her criminal history and being able to get the certified nursing assistant license she needed to do the job that she trained for. But she had neither the income nor the savings to pay what she owed and struggled to make $5 monthly payments. Some states go even further, charging exorbitant rates for expungements. Louisiana charges $550. It’s a cruel Catch 22: where criminal justice debt prevents people from finding jobs, it both denies those Americans a second chance and a fresh start and blocks their capacity to pay back such debts.
Actual Prison for Debt:
The new debt prisons are not just metaphorical. Criminal justice debt also lands many in actual jail or prison. In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled that jailing indigent debtors violated the 14th Amendment. Yet judges rarely consider defendants’ ability to pay before imposing fines and fees, and studies across different regions found that one in five people in jail were there for unpaid court debt. Across the country, from Missouri to New York to Texas, people are serving jail time for missing fines and fees payments. Texas jailed over half a million people in 2017 for failing to pay fines and fees and over 450,000 in 2018. As of 2016, 44 states allowed courts to send people back to jail or prison for failing to pay court debt.
In a stark example that seems drawn from a century ago, in Mississippi, judges can give indefinite sentences for people to work off their restitution and court debt at one of the state’s four “restitution centers.” Debtors work for private employers with sentences that can last as long as it takes to pay off their debt. Three quarters of the money people “earn” in these centers goes to the courts and corrections department, and half of the people in the centers were working off less than $3,515 in debt.
This has to stop.
The evidence is now overwhelming that the explosion of criminal justice debt deepens the system’s racial inequities and blocks millions of Americans from the capacity to earn a living and care for their families. We need to call for state and local governments to fund the police and criminal justice system through general revenues or widespread forms of financing instead of such fines and fees. This would both increase second chances and administrative efficiency. The Brennan Center reports that it costs states and local government a whopping 121 times more to collect funds through fines and fees than it costs the IRS to collect the same amount of revenue. And while we undergo a national re-examination of cash bail and other forms of criminalization of poverty, we should make a flat determination to stop jailing anyone for failure to pay criminal justice fines and fees due to poverty or lack of income or savings.
We also must expand legislative efforts to curtain the suspension of driver’s licenses due to unpaid fines and fees as we’ve seen recently in states and cities, including New York, West Virginia, California Washington, D.C., and Chicago. The bipartisan Driving for Opportunity Act, co-sponsored by Senators Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, and Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, and supported by Patrick Yoes, the national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, would incentivize more states to stop suspending licenses for unpaid debt. The recent legislation to repeal the ban on Pell grants for those in prison seeking a higher education is welcome news but only a first step. To increase job opportunities and economic independence for those leaving incarceration, far more funding is needed to expand innovative pre-apprenticeship programs for those incarcerated, to support “clean slate” efforts to expunge records for those with arrests or convictions and to provide comprehensive transitional housing and employment help to those leaving prison.
A belief in the economic logic and economic dignity of giving all Americans second and third chances led our nation to end debt prisons once before. It’s time to put an end to them one more time.
Mr. Sperling was the Director of the National Economic Council under President Obama and President Clinton, and is the author of “Economic Dignity.”
Ms. Cooper, a white woman, called 911 on the bird-watcher in Central Park. Prosecutors asked a judge to drop the charges after she finished an education program about racial bias.
By Jonah E. Bromwich, Feb. 16, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/16/nyregion/amy-cooper-charges-dismissed.html?action=click&module=Latest&pgtype=Homepage
The case against Amy Cooper, the white woman who called the police on a Black bird-watcher in Central Park and falsely told them that he had threatened her, was dismissed on Tuesday after Ms. Cooper completed a therapeutic educational program that included instruction about racial biases.
At a hearing in Manhattan Criminal Court, the prosecution asked a judge to dismiss one count of filing a false report against Ms. Cooper, and the judge immediately did so.
The therapy focused on the way that racial identities shape people’s lives, an assistant district attorney said at the hearing.
The prosecutor, Joan Illuzzi, said Ms. Cooper’s therapist reported that their five sessions together were “a moving experience” and that Ms. Cooper “learned a lot.”
Ms. Cooper was offered the program, part of an alternative solution that falls under the rubric of restorative justice, partially based on her lack of criminal background, Ms. Illuzzi-Orbon said. Restorative justice, an alternative to traditional prosecution, looks at the harm done and implements a process for reconciliation among the parties involved, including the offender, the victim and the community.
In a statement posted to Twitter, Ms. Cooper’s lawyer, Robert Barnes, thanked the Manhattan district attorney’s office for what he called “a thorough & honest inquiry.”
“We thank them for their integrity and concur w/ the outcome,” he wrote. “Others rushed to the wrong conclusion based on inadequate investigation & they may yet face legal consequences.”
Ms. Cooper’s dispute with the bird-watcher, Christian Cooper, rocked New York City last spring after video of an inconsolable Ms. Cooper calling the police and falsely telling them that “an African-American man is threatening my life” went viral. The video of their encounter, posted by Mr. Cooper’s sister on Twitter, has been watched more than 45 million times.
Mr. Cooper, who is not related to Ms. Cooper, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Amid bread shortages, Cuba gets one step closer to a scientific milestone: the mass production of a coronavirus vaccine invented on the island.
By Ed Augustin and Natalie Kitroeff, Feb. 17, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/17/world/americas/coronavirus-cuba-vaccine.html?searchResultPosition=1
HAVANA — People wait in line for four hours to buy detergent in Havana. Cuban pharmacies are out of pain medication. There are national bread shortages.
And yet the Cuban government says it is on the brink of an extraordinary scientific achievement: the mass production of a coronavirus vaccine invented on the island.
One of the four vaccines developed by Cuban scientists will enter a final phase of testing next month, a crucial step toward regulatory approval that, if successful, could put the island on the path to inoculate its entire population and begin exports abroad by year’s end.
If the vaccine proves safe and effective, it would hand the Cuban government a significant political victory — and a shot at rescuing the nation from economic ruin. For a country that has for decades touted its sophisticated health care system as evidence of the benefits of socialism, the vaccine also offers a unique public relations opportunity.
The vaccine heading for a final phase of trials is called Sovereign 2, in a nod to the pride the island takes in its autonomy, despite decades of hostility from its neighbor to the north. Already, Cuba is floating the idea of enticing tourists to its shores with the irresistible cocktail of sun, sand and a shot of Sovereign 2.
Vicente Vérez, one of the scientists leading the team that developed the vaccine, has said that the island could offer vaccinations to all foreigners who travel there.
“It’s not just medicine and humanitarianism; there’s a big economic payoff if they can get the virus under control,” said Richard Feinberg, a Cuba expert at the University of California San Diego. “It will be not only immediate income, but a boost to the reputation of the Cuban pharmaceutical biotech sector, which will enable them to market other medical products.”
Cuban scientists say the government will probably give away some doses to poor countries, in keeping with its longstanding practice of strengthening international relations by donating medicine and sending doctors to address public health crises abroad.
“Cuba always donated vaccines,” said Gerardo Guillén, a scientist developing two of the four vaccines at the state-owned Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. “We help other countries.”
Cuba began to pour money into biotech in the 1980s, as part of Fidel Castro’s drive to make the nation self-sufficient in the face of a U.S. embargo that made it difficult to obtain drugs produced abroad.
The investment in public health gave rise to dozens of medical research institutions and a surplus of doctors, which Cuba sends to other countries in medical missions.
In 2019, the leasing of doctors, nurses and technicians brought in $5.4 billion, twice as much as tourism, a major driver of the economy.
The island’s biotech sector is also well developed. Cuba makes eight of the 12 vaccines administered to children on the island and exports vaccines to more than 30 countries.
“It is a biotech juggernaut,” said Gail Reed, the editor of MEDICC Review, a peer-reviewed journal of Cuban and developing world medicine, about the island. “The accomplishments are undeniable.”
Cuban scientists have also developed innovative treatments, including a lung cancer vaccine, which is in trials with the New York-based Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“Sometimes people think because it’s Cuba, they’re just making these drugs in their garage and giving them to people, and that’s not true,” said Candace Johnson, Roswell Park’s president. “They’re very much practicing with exactly the same high standards that every other country does producing these drugs.”
Ms. Johnson said that Cuban scientists demonstrated that they “adhered to all the appropriate standards and controls” before she was able to bring the lung cancer drug to New York.
Producing the coronavirus vaccine was made more complicated by the Trump administration’s tightening of sanctions on Cuba. Scientists say they haven’t been able to buy all the equipment and raw materials they need, including spectrometers used for quality control. The two research groups working on the drug have only one that is powerful enough to analyze the vaccine, Dr. Guillén said, and it’s about 20 years old.
“Cubans not only are able to make old cars still work, they can manage to make old equipment work,” said Mitchell Valdes Sosa, the director of the Cuban Neurosciences Center.
The Sovereign 2 vaccine has progressed through two phases of trials and is set to enter a third phase, where it will be tested on around 150,000 people in Cuba and in Iran, which has shown interest in purchasing the drug. Mexico is also in talks with the Cubans to participate in the third phase of trials.
Like the vaccine being developed by Novavax, a U.S. company, Sovereign 2 is a protein-based vaccine that contains part of the coronavirus. It requires three doses administered in two-week intervals and, unlike the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, does not need to be stored in deep freeze — which may be a draw for poorer countries that often lack the equipment to keep so many doses frozen.
Dr. Vérez said in a text message that Sovereign 2 is “very safe with very few adverse effects,” a requirement to move onto a third and final phase of trials. Scientists will not publish its efficacy rate until the trials are completed. It is still unclear whether the vaccine will protect against new variants, one of which has already been detected on the island.
The government is optimistic and boasts that it could produce 100 million doses this year, more than enough to vaccinate the entire country of 11 million and, possibly, foreign visitors.
But Cuba may not have the equipment necessary to manufacture its vaccine at that scale. U.S. sanctions have raised the cost of purchasing raw materials and have complicated transfers of funds into the island.
“It might get difficult to purchase enough vials for their 100 million doses,” said José Luis DiFabio, the former World Health Organization representative in Cuba. “Or if you have equipment that needs to be repaired, you don’t have access to the parts that you might need. Or instead of getting something in a week, you get it in a month.”
And opening the doors to vaccine-hungry tourists may create new problems.
Cuba limited the spread of the virus early on, leaning on its tight control of the population and an efficient system for delivering health care. Anyone diagnosed with the virus was immediately hospitalized and put on a cocktail of Cuban and generic drugs.
The government isolated their close contacts and monitored them for symptoms. Cuba reported just 12,225 confirmed coronavirus cases and 146 deaths in 2020, among the lowest rates in the Western Hemisphere.
Then, following the decision to open international air travel in November after a seven-month closure, case numbers spiked. Authorities are now battling the worst outbreak since the pandemic began, with more cases registered in January than in all of last year, and recently set a 9 p.m. curfew in Havana.
The government hasn’t yet announced any specific plans for inoculating tourists, but will have to take into consideration the length of time it would take to deliver all three shots required by Sovereign 2.
Dr. Guillén said that rather than stay on the island for a month and a half, tourists may be given the option to get one shot on the island, and pack the other two doses in their suitcase for vaccination back home.
The plan to open vaccination to tourists appears, to some, to be a risky and shrewdly capitalist gambit to attract visitors, and with them the hard currency the island desperately needs. The combination of the pandemic and sanctions have created the worst economic crisis the country has experienced since the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, experts say.
Cuban scientists, however, insist the goal is to spread health. Any profit, they say, is merely a side effect.
“We are not a multinational where return on investment is our No. 1 priority,” Mr. Vérez, who is leading development of the vaccine, said in a recent news conference. “Our first priority is to create health, and return on investment is a consequence of that.”
Republicans are blaming renewable energy, when it’s the state’s powerful utilities that failed to prepare for the worst.
By Richard Parker, Feb. 17, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/17/opinion/texas-blackout-energy-abbott.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage
Electric utility trucks in front of an Oncor facility in Fort Worth on Tuesday in preparation for more power outages because of the frigid weather conditions. Credit...Ralph Lauer/EPA, via Shutterstock
On Sunday in San Antonio, April Saenz, a medical worker, went to visit her mother. Because of the terrible road conditions brought on by the ongoing cold snap, she chose to stay the night. Together, they passed 36 hours in the shivering darkness. Food thawed in the freezer, and Ms. Saenz eyed her mother’s insulin in the fridge, worried it would go bad. “It was really upsetting. It was crazy,” she told me. “These were complete man-made failures.”
A cold, sharp dagger has slashed through Texas, America’s largest and proudest producer of fossil fuels, while stranding millions without heat or light. The frigid disaster has also laid bare the fallacy, still prominent in the Lone Star State, that oil and gas are more important than impending climate catastrophe, embarrassing a political class that just weeks ago pledged to defend the oil and gas industry — its own Alamo — from the Biden administration.
The fallacy is hard to unwind even as people are dying. But some Texans are also furious about how their state’s ruinous laissez-faire governance led to a cascade of human-caused disasters of epic proportions. Indeed, this was no act of God.
Last week, 29 million Texans learned that the weather would turn unseasonably cold. It would be no ordinary blue norther: As the planet warms, so does the Arctic, disrupting the jet stream, which usually keeps the polar vortex of frigid air in place there. Now there is an emerging, if not unanimous, view among climatologists that the vortex is wobbling and dipping south, paralyzing Madrid, freezing the American Midwest and blanketing the Sierra Nevada, all since the start of this year.
Yet the folks over at the Texas power grid appear to have been caught flat-footed by spiking demand in energy to keep houses warm and phones charged. In general, there’s a storage problem in Texas when it comes to natural gas. Utility companies often don’t bother to buy gas reserves: It’s easier, cheaper and more profitable to tap the gas in the field with a pipeline — usually.
But the moment to invest in resilience has passed. The spot price in early February was under $3 per million British thermal units; this week those spot prices have soared to all-time highs. After a cold snap in 2011, the power companies were supposed to better winterize their plants. Ten years later, they hadn’t done it. It’s hard to believe they couldn’t afford it: Oncor, the giant power utility serving Dallas, reported $651 million in net income in 2019.
As the cold froze Oklahoma and sent temperatures in Dallas to lows not seen in over a century, the natural gas industry proved unable to deliver more gas even if it was purchased. Wellheads in the Permian Basin froze solid. Pipelines leaked water, which, in turn, turned metal and gas into useless, immovable ice.
The crisis dates back to the 1930s, when the Federal Power Commission gained the authority to regulate interstate transmission of electric power. But politicians in Texas, with their slavish devotion to the fossil fuel industry, didn’t want Washington regulating the electricity business and chipping away at those hefty profits.
So the business went entirely unregulated until the formation of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) in the 1970s. But ERCOT has been anything but reliable. While it is technically overseen by the state, its board is really just an industry club. Several of its members don’t even live in Texas.
On Saturday, Gov. Greg Abbott solemnly declared the state would not see another accident like Thursday’s deadly 100-plus-vehicle pileup on a frozen Fort Worth highway. On Monday, he reassured Texans that power would return. That day, two million people were plunged into darkness, and many into 8 degree weather. Then four million. By Tuesday, 10 people had died in the Houston and San Antonio area alone. Water pipes burst across the state, forcing people without power to boil water just to drink it safely.
After taking a beating on Twitter, Mr. Abbott spun around on Tuesday and blamed the utilities. He promised an investigation into ERCOT. George P. Bush, the state land commissioner, cravenly blamed the renewable energy industry, a talking point that caught fire among conservatives.
It was all just cowpie, though: Renewables like wind and solar can contribute up to 20 percent of the Texas power grid, but they were forecast to account for just 7 percent of the winter grid, with some 80 percent of electricity in the Lone Star State’s capacity projected to come from natural gas, coal and a bit of nuclear power. And while some wind turbines in Texas froze, many of them kept turning. By Tuesday, renewables were helping to get the power going again. But it wasn’t enough. Each time the power came back up on Tuesday, demand spiked, and the power supply ran right back down. The rolling blackouts would just keep on rolling.
On Wednesday, Mr. Abbott ordered natural gas producers not to let their supply out of the state until Sunday, and to instead send it to the electrical grid. How soon this could help the millions of Texans who continue to shiver in the darkness is unclear. ERCOT has, once again, ordered utilities to cut power.
“It feels colder than 25 degrees outside. I’m shivering in the house. … My hands are freezing. My feet are freezing, and my nose is freezing,” Laura Bettor, a psychologist in Austin, told me as she watched people ski down her street. “People’s phones are down because they can’t charge. And the government here? Everything about the state government here is stupid.”
Richard Parker is an award-winning journalist and the author of “Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America.”
Punishing mothers for needing help cannot be the answer. A generous child allowance might be.
By Ezra Klein, Opinion Columnist, Feb. 18, 2021
Uli Seit for The New York Times
Wanda Lavender lives in Milwaukee. She’s 39, with six children and one grandchild. She used to be a day care teacher and proud of the work. But after a decade, she was still making $9 an hour. She was a single mother by then, and the money wasn’t enough. So she began working at Popeyes, too. She did both jobs for a time, putting in more than 60 hours a week.
“It took a toll on my health,” she told me. “I have rheumatoid arthritis and sciatica. It degrades your body. It messes with your mental status. You never get to see your kids. You’re always working.”
Here’s the question: Were those years in which Lavender worked night and day barely seeing her children, feeling her body break under the labor, a success of American public policy or a failure?
There’s long been a strain of conservative thinking that sees Lavender’s long hours as a success. In 2005, President George W. Bush listened to a woman tell him that she worked three jobs. “Uniquely American, isn’t it?” he replied with a smile. “I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that.”
Bush’s comment was an extreme expression of a common — and bipartisan — sentiment: Work is good, more of it is better and policy should be a conveyor belt from the moral torpor of idleness to the dignity of wage labor. You could do that by making work pay more, as with the earned-income tax credit, which subsidizes earnings from low-wage jobs. But you could also do that by making the choice not to work, or to work less, more punishing — as with the 1996 welfare reforms, or the various proposals for Medicaid and SNAP work requirements, which would tie income, health insurance and even food to work status.
Now, with both President Biden and Senator Mitt Romney proposing ambitious plans for cash grants to parents, irrespective of the parent’s work status, some conservatives are warning that these plans would lead to sloth and single parenthood. It is here that you see how the veneration of work, at any and all costs, has come to dominate conservative policy thinking: Even higher rates of child poverty are a price worth paying for more working mothers. Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio quickly dismissed Romney’s plan as “welfare assistance,” warning that “an essential part of being pro-family is being pro-work.”
One way of considering this argument is technocratic: Will a child allowance actually reduce the number of parents who work? Similar policies in other countries have shown small, mixed effects on parental labor. Some parents, particularly when they’re the second earner, leave the work force to parent full time. Others use the extra money to buy child care, or a used car, and work more. Canada, for instance, has a more generous child allowance than anything Romney or Biden have proposed, and a higher proportion of women in the work force. The effect of child allowances on whether parents work is small, but their effects on child poverty are large — estimates suggest the Romney proposal would cut child poverty by a third, and the Biden plan by half.
But I want to consider the deeper question here: Even if a child allowance would lead some parents to drop out of the formal work force, would that be a bad thing? Forcing parents into low-wage, often exploitative, jobs by threatening them and their children with poverty may be counted as a success by some policymakers, but it’s a sign of a society that doesn’t value the most essential forms of labor. The problem lurks in the very language we use. If I left my job as a New York Times columnist to care, full time, for my 2-year-old son, I’d be described as leaving the labor force. But as much as I adore my child, there is absolutely no doubt I’d be working harder. I’d have fewer days off, a more demanding boss and worse pay.
“One of the bigger symbolic purposes of the child allowance is to say the work a parent does is valid — it’s valid as work,” Samuel Hammond, director of poverty and welfare policy at the Niskanen Center, said. “I do think it’s a market failure in capitalist economies that there isn’t a parenting wage.”
I spent some time on the phone this week with Scott Winship, resident scholar and director of poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute, to try to understand the conservative objections more fully. First, Winship said, he just doesn’t believe it’s the government’s role to subsidize parenting. “A lot of people think it’s just become too expensive to raise kids and therefore we need to subsidize parenthood,” he told me. “I just disagree with that.”
Second, Winship’s policy views, like those of many other conservatives, were forged in the fires of welfare reform. “It’s just unambiguously the case that welfare reform led to an increase in work and a decline in poverty,” he said. That’s actually not unambiguous — there’s a strong argument that welfare reform led to more poverty during the Great Recession and particularly to more deep poverty — but let’s grant the argument for a moment.
Kathryn Edin, a sociologist at Princeton who has studied welfare reform extensively, told me that most of the single mothers who went to work after reform had children under age three. “We don’t know that that’s good,” she said.
Even if you applaud that result, most experts I spoke to, including Edin, thought the pre-1996 welfare programs were a poor comparison for a child allowance. They were often structured in ways that directly discouraged work: A dollar in earnings would mean a dollar less in benefits. “I interviewed nearly 400 people, multiple times, across the country, for six years about their budgets,” Edin told me. “The reason people stayed on welfare is they couldn’t afford to go to work.” The various child allowance plans are designed to be work-neutral — a dollar in earnings doesn’t degrade benefits until families begin making hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you work more hours, you simply make more money.
When I brought this up, Winship dismissed it. The problem with welfare, he said, was that the existence of the cash payments meant single mothers “could afford not to work,” and the child allowance proposals would offer them the same option. I worry about the pain and the awful choices hiding inside the words “could afford.” Poor parents cannot afford to leave paid work and live lives that anyone in the Washington policy debate — left, right or center — would consider comfortable.
And yet, the supposed comforts of social insurance are a recurrent conservative trope. “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives,” Paul Ryan said in 2012. I have napped in hammocks, and I have spoken to people trying to survive on food stamps. The experiences did not seem similar.
The arid language of economics can, in cases like these, obscure what’s actually being said. Romney’s proposal would mean $1,050 a month for a single mother with three children under six. That’s $12,600 a year. It’s a help, but at less than half of the poverty line, it’s far from enough. What would lead a parent to leave his or her job for so paltry a check? It is often a disabled or troubled child, a sick family member, mental or physical health issues, a tyrannical boss, a hellish commute. You need a damn good reason to leave paid labor if the thin system of social insurance in the United States is all that’s waiting on the other side. What makes policymakers in Washington so sure they are right that these parents would be better off staying in their job, and leaving the crises at home to fester?
When I talked to Jamila Michener, co-director of Cornell’s Center for Health Equity, about this, she argued that we do trust parents to make those decisions. We just don’t trust poor parents to make them. She told me the story of coming to Cornell with a 3-month-old and a 3-year-old, and finding out that her mother had stage 3 pancreatic cancer. Michener was vying for tenure at that point, so her husband took five years off to care for their children and her mother.
“Whenever I tell people about that, they say, ‘He’s amazing! What a great partner,’” Michener said. “In the context of a family not living in poverty, to make the decision to stay home for a bit to care for an ill family member is considered virtuous. But for a woman living in poverty to take some time off to care for a family member is vice.” That experience has become a touchstone for Michener in the classroom. She always asks her students why they praise her husband for staying home, but whenever the syllabus turns to welfare or food stamps, they worry social insurance will lead poor mothers to stop working.
Race thrums through this conversation. Whose work ethic is trusted, and whose is not, has always been racialized in this country. “We venerate work for the marginalized — we require it, demand it, for those on the economic margins and for people of color,” Michener told me. “For most of American history, white women weren’t expected to work, they were discouraged from working. It just shows you the flexibility of our assumptions about work as a necessary part of social and political life.”
My own view is that work should be available, accessible and well-paid. It should be available, in the sense that there should be jobs to be had — that can be encouraged through monetary policy and even direct jobs programs. It should be accessible, meaning that parents have access to affordable child care, transportation and housing options so that they can work, if they want to. And it should pay decently, through a mix of minimum wage laws, strengthened unions and stronger wage subsidies.
If you are truly worried about labor force participation, there’s a vast menu of generous policies that could directly lift it, and we should use them. In Washington, D.C., universal pre-K increased the labor force participation of mothers by about 10 percentage points, a truly huge effect. But if we were a society in which all those polices had been passed, and parents decided it’s best to spend their working hours doing the difficult and important job of caring for three young children and an ailing elder, that choice is worth honoring.
There is no evidence that spending long hours as a day care worker for someone else’s child or a health aide for someone else’s parent is somehow a better choice than caring for your own family. It can look that way in the statistics, if we consign poor families to poverty when a parent feels she needs to stay home. But that is society simply measuring the outcome of its own cruelty and calling the result economics.
“People on the right always say, what about the dignity of work?” Michener told me, “and my answer is: What about the dignity of dignity? The ability to be of sound body and mind and do the things most human beings want to do: spend time with your family. Have some time for leisure. Of course there can be dignity in work, and we should create the circumstances to make that possible, but there’s no natural dignity in work. We’ve needed labor movements because work can be harmful and oppressive unless we organize to make sure it has dignity. There are a lot of other factors and ways we need to intervene if we want work and dignity to be words we can use in the same sentence. And the way we do our social policy in this country, we have no right to use those words in the same sentence.”
These days, Lavender told me, she works full time at Popeyes. They promised her a promotion if she left her day care job, so now she makes $12 an hour, working 40 to 60 hours a week. I asked her how something like the Romney plan might change her life. “That means the opportunity to return to school, to open my own business. It could mean buying a house so I don’t need to catch the bus to work.”
I’d met Lavender because she’s organizing for a $15 minimum wage, and she said the experience had been transformative. She was considering running for alderwoman in Milwaukee so she could keep fighting for workers like herself. I wondered, as she said that, where she’d find the time. But that, too, is the kind of choice a child allowance could enable — it would give her breathing room to run for office so that in the future policy would be made by people like her, who trusted people like her.
In 1863, mobs of white New Yorkers terrorized Black people. The response has something to teach us.
By Elizabeth Mitchell, Feb. 18, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/18/opinion/draft-riots-racism.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage
A mob murdered 23-year-old Abraham Franklin at 27th Street and Seventh Avenue in New York City. He had hurried to visit his mother to pray by her side for her protection when the rioters began raging from Downtown to Uptown. Just as he finished his prayers, they crashed through the door, beat him and hanged him as his mother looked on. Then they mutilated his body in front of her.
During the riots in July 1863, the mob also came upon Peter Heuston, a 63-year-old widowed war veteran and a member of the Mohawk tribe, whom they took to be Black. They brutally attacked him on Roosevelt and Oak Streets near the East River. He died of his injuries, leaving his 8-year-old daughter an orphan.
Another victim, William Jones, was so disfigured, whether from the mob’s mutilation or the decay his body endured waiting for observers to gain courage to investigate his identity, that he could only be identified by the loaf of bread under his arm. He had gone out to fetch the staple for his wife and never returned.
One woman testified that the mob broke through the doors of her son’s house on East 28th Street in Manhattan, where she was visiting, using pickaxes to break through. The thugs threw a baby out the window to its death. They chopped through the water pipes so the people hiding in the basement of the building would be drowned. They struck her son over the head with a crowbar and he died in the hospital two days later.
Some 400 white people attacked the Black orphanage on Fifth Avenue near 43rd Street. They cut the trees with axes, uprooted the shrubs in what had been a carefully tended garden, carted away the fence and burned the building to the ground.
Many people today, if they have even heard of the Draft Riots, probably know it as a violent citizens’ revolt against President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 mandatory conscription of soldiers. In Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” inspired by the nonfiction book by Herbert Asbury, what happened over those days comes across as a somewhat entertaining if gory battle between rival white gangs.
The truth is that over the course of some four days, mobs of white New Yorkers roamed the streets of the city from City Hall to Gramercy Park to past 40th Street, setting fire to buildings and killing people, specifically targeting Black people for the most horrific violence. Historians are still assessing the overall death toll, with estimates ranging from more than 100 to more than a thousand. One of the most prestigious Black newspapers of the time estimated the deaths of people of color to be as high as 175. Other Black people were driven from their homes and all of their property destroyed. In the aftermath, some 5,000 Black New Yorkers were discovered hiding on Blackwell’s Island, in police stations, in the swamps of New Jersey and in barns on Long Island, desperately seeking safety from the murderous white crowds.
The gruesome events should be remembered. They are as much a part of the city’s history as 9/11, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire or immigration through Ellis Island. And there is a related story to tell. One reason we know about the brutality of those events is a booklet, “Report of the Merchants’ Committee for the Relief of Colored People Suffering from the Riots in the City of New York,” published in 1863, from which I’ve drawn many of the descriptions in this piece. Importantly, the clerks of the merchant’s committee recorded the testimony of many of the people who had lost loved ones to the murderous gangs, creating a clear record of many of the atrocities committed.
Immediately after the riots, the white merchants of New York combined forces to raise money to care for the injured, repair the damaged property and support the legal and employment needs of the terrorized Black people. Of course nothing could make up for the lives lost and the pain and suffering inflicted on those who were attacked. But the shopkeepers quickly raised over $40,000, equivalent to more than $825,000 today. Their fund-raising effort was notable because it focused on preserving and honoring the dignity of the people the merchant committee’s report described as the “sufferers.”
“We have not come together to devise means for their relief because they are colored people,” wrote Jonathan Sturges, the treasurer of the group, “but because they are, as a class, persecuted and in distress at the present moment.”
The merchants went about their work methodically. They vowed to secure help from the county. Lawyers volunteered their expertise. When requested, ministers visited the homes of survivors. They urged businesses that were afraid to rehire their Black employees for fear of the mob’s vengeance to be courageous, and promised to guard the businesses that did rehire.
J.D. McKenzie, the chairman, noted that the murderers and pillagers “sought to destroy a race.” But the shopkeepers made a point of not wasting their time focusing on who perpetrated each of the evil deeds. The report made clear that the murderers were clearly “bad men.” The group moved on to what they could do to rectify the inhumanity.
On Saturday, July 25, 1863, the third day that funds were dispersed, applicants packed Fourth Street near Broadway. The donors prided themselves on limiting stress for the recipients. “There are no harsh or unkind words uttered by the clerks — no impertinent quizzing in regard to irrelevant matters — no partisan or sectarian view advanced. The business is transacted in a straightforward, practical manner, without chilling the charity into an offense by creating the impression that the recipient is humiliated by accepting the gift,” the New York Daily Tribune reported. The donors encouraged people to return if they needed more help.
In the first month, the group assisted 6,392 people. Since their children were beneficiaries as well, the total number helped added up to 12,782 — from laborers to music teachers, physicians to cooks, ministers, artists, and farmers.
Black ministers and laymen wrote a note to the merchants about what it all meant: “You did not hesitate to come forward to our relief amid the threatened destruction of your own lives and property. You obeyed the noblest dictates of the human heart, and by your generous moral courage you rolled back the tide of violence that had well nigh swept us away.”
This episode from the 19th century is haunting even now, first, because of its brutality. The violence occurred on streets where people now dine and shop, oblivious to what happened. Men were lynched while simply walking home from their jobs. But the manner in which the shopkeepers of New York responded is also important, and it may be instructive to how all people confront and respond to racism today.
It’s horrific what happened on Washington and Leroy Streets, or 34th Street at the East River, East 28th Street, Fulton Ferry, 30th Street and Second Avenue and Carmine Street in 1863. But horrific events fueled by racism are not just in our past. Think of what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis and David McAtee in Louisville and Ahmaud Arbery in South Georgia, and what happens in the cells of people still waiting to be freed under the Supreme Court’s ruling against juvenile life sentences. The story of the merchants’ response to the so-called Draft Riots is a reminder that we can all do more if we don’t want the lives of more Black people to be marred by cruelty. That begins with having a cleareyed view of our own history. Understanding the past in a way that’s neither sugarcoated nor whitewashed will keep us moving forward.
Ms. Mitchell is a journalist and the author of four nonfiction books, including “Lincoln’s Lie: A True Civil War Caper Through Fake News, Wall Street and the White House.”
Experts say the brand’s new intimate care line shames young people and might even pose potential health risks.
By Dani Blum, Feb. 18, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/18/well/vagisil-omv-teens.html?surface=most-popular&fellback=false&req_id=523159565&algo=bandit-all-surfaces-decay-decay-02&variant=2_bandit-all-surfaces-decay-decay-02&imp_id=666018827&action=click&module=Most%20Popular&pgtype=Homepage
An oatmeal-infused anti-itch serum claims to soothe the “bikini and intimate” region. A scented body wash says that it is “gentle enough for your vaginal area.” A confetti-dotted package of cleansing feminine wipes is “small enough to fit in your locker or a backpack.”
These products make up a new line of vanilla- and clementine-scented intimate care items for teenagers called OMV! (a play on the expression “OMG!”). The sparkly new brand — which comes from the makers of Vagisil and includes personal wipes, a wash and a serum — has cutesy packaging and uses phrases on its website and social media that might sound familiar to younger generations. (Why not “level-up” your teen’s “self-care routine” and enhance their “glow-up”?)
But in recent weeks, OMV! has drawn the ire of gynecologists and other women’s health experts online, who have argued that the brand’s focus on “freshness” might be contributing to unhealthy body image issues for young people by promoting the idea that vulvas are “dirty” and that they should appear or smell a certain way.
“Hey @vagisil going to call you out here for this predatory line of products aimed at teen girls,” Dr. Jen Gunter, a gynecologist and contributor to The New York Times, wrote on Twitter.
“How many times have we talked about how this industry preys on the insecurities of women?” Dr. Staci Tanouye, a gynecologist in Florida, said about the product line in a TikTok video. “And now we are directly targeting teens to tell them that they’re dirty.”
As with other types of scented intimate care products that are marketed for use on or around the vulva, many experts also have concerns that these products might be harmful to vaginal health.
In a written statement to The New York Times, a representative from Vagisil said that their OMV! products are safe and were tested rigorously, “using board-certified gynecologists and dermatologists,” before the care line’s launch.
But Dr. Danielle Jones, a gynecologist in Texas, said that this phrasing could be misleading. “You’ll notice they’re very careful in their wording,” she said in an email. Saying that a product is “gynecologist-tested” isn’t the same as “gynecologist-approved,” she said, “and safe isn’t equivalent to necessary.”
For example, she said, if a company asks her to “test” their product and she says that it is “terribly irritating in some patients,” the company could still “claim ‘gynecologist tested’ in their marketing.”
In 2018, the global feminine intimate care market was valued at $1.1 billion, according to market research firm Grand View Research, with intimate washes accounting for nearly 40 percent of the share.
The OMV! brand, which launched last year, is just one of many personal care lines that advertise to young women by telling them they should feel “comfortable in your own body” by keeping it fresh and clean.
But that sends the wrong message, said Dr. Heather Irobunda, an ob-gyn at NYC Health + Hospitals, especially for teens who don’t have access to adequate sexual education.
“Not only does it teach girls at a young age that you should probably smell like a Creamsicle,” she said, “it also then has these young girls question what exactly is a normal smell down there.”
Dr. Gunter, who learned about the OMV! line after some of her Instagram followers sent her direct messages about it, said that after looking up the brand’s website, she was appalled by some of the language they used in their advertising. She was especially irked by the tagline on the landing page that implies that “period funk” is a nuisance to be eliminated, and that their “No-Sweat” vulva wipes are supposed to help teens “never worry about staying fresh again.”
“This is all purity culture,” Dr. Gunter said. “It’s infantilizing — you have to be pure, clean, fresh, natural. These products always make it sound like you’re supposed to be a contestant on a game show called ‘America’s Next Virgin Bride’ or something.”
At the same time, experts have said that for some, the damage from these and other types of scented intimate hygiene products can extend beyond the psychological.
Any product that is scented can potentially damage the skin, Dr. Tanouye said. And while not everyone may experience a reaction, or react immediately, experts said that certain health issues can emerge after prolonged use. “Fragrance is the No. 1 cause of allergic contact dermatitis,” Dr. Tanouye said, which is a condition in which the skin gets inflamed and becomes itchy, red and rashy after contact with an irritating substance.
Because these are some of the same symptoms that many of these products claim to soothe, health experts said they are concerned that, in an effort to get rid of symptoms like pain, itching or irritation — which could be signs of a larger problem, like a yeast or bacterial infection — women might keep using these products and potentially make their problems worse.
“If a person with a vagina has itching, the key isn’t to cover it up with an anti-itch cream,” said Dr. Jennifer Lincoln, an obstetrician in Portland, Ore. “We’re really concerned about people delaying care.”
Dr. Irobunda estimated that about 30 percent of the patients she sees in an average week come in with vaginal complaints like itching, pain and inflammation that they’ve tried to heal with over-the-counter products from brands like Vagisil or Summer’s Eve (which sells feminine hygiene items like douches, cleansing cloths and “freshening sprays”). She sees many patients who are underinsured or in low-income communities, and who opt to treat their symptoms with creams they can pick up at a pharmacy instead of seeking medical attention. “It doesn’t wash away the bacteria that causes an inflammation or smell,” she said. “If the area is already inflamed, using these products will irritate that area even more.”
Dr. Jones, who posted a YouTube video about the OMV! line under her channel “Mama Doctor Jones” (which currently has more than 320,000 views), said she is concerned that teens might develop a habit of using these products. “It catches them early where it becomes something they think they inherently need for the rest of their lives,” she said.
And when use of these kinds of intimate care products becomes more regular, said Dr. Monica Woll Rosen, an ob-gyn at the University of Michigan Medical School, that can potentially disrupt the healthy balance of bacteria in the vagina, which can increase the risk of bacterial infections, sexually transmitted infections and urinary tract infections in teens.
Using these types of products in the vagina can “damage lactobacilli and mucus,” Dr. Gunter wrote on Twitter, which could increase the risk of sexually transmitted infections if exposed.
The first thing Dr. Tanouye tells patients who complain about vaginal itching or irritation is to stop using any scented products.
If you have an odor that suddenly changes, or experience a change in the color of your vaginal discharge, it’s time to see a doctor, rather than reach for over-the-counter products, she said.
“The catastrophic consequences are probably uncommon but not impossible,” Dr. Gunter said. “But irritation from these products? Absolutely. I see that every day.”
Too often, attention to nonwhite groups is only as pressing as the injuries that they have suffered.
"...the challenge of democracy is not about identifying with someone like yourself (that’s easy to do) nor about giving up your self-interest (that’s hard to ask). It’s about learning to see your self-interest as profoundly and inevitably entwined with the interests of others."
By Anne Anlin Cheng, Feb. 21, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/21/opinion/anti-asian-violence.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage
A 23-year-old Korean woman in New York was punched in the face last March and accused of having the coronavirus. More incidents followed as the virus spread, with Asian-Americans being spat on, beaten, slashed, even attacked with chemicals.
In response to pandemic-related violence like this, advocacy organizations came together to document cases of harassment and vitriol against Asian-Americans. Stop AAPI Hate received 2,800 reports in 2020, around 240 of which were physical assaults, and the AAPI Emergency Response Network has received over 3,000 reports since it started tracking Covid-specific hate incidents last year.
The violence has continued into the new year. In January, in San Francisco, an 84-year-old Thai man died after being assaulted on the street; across the Bay, in Oakland’s Chinatown, a 91-year-old man was shoved to the ground. Some of these cases have made it to national news, but most haven’t. The low profile of this wave of violence is a reminder of how racial violence goes unexamined when it doesn’t fit neatly into the standard narrative of race in America.
Racial violence in the United States is not simply Black and white, even if it looks that way. Instead, it can reveal layered victimizations and mediated enmity. The recent incidents of anti-Asian violence in the Bay Area, in particular, highlight this: Some Asian-Americans were outraged by the violence and demanded justice, but since the perpetrators in these cases were Black, many others felt deeply uncomfortable with contributing to the criminalization of African-Americans.
And here we come to the heart of the complexity of “speaking up” for Asian-Americans. Thanks to the “Model Minority” myth — popularized in 1966 by the sociologist William Petersen and later used as a direct counterpoint to the “welfare queen” stereotype applied to Black Americans — Asian-Americans have long been used by mainstream white culture to shame and drive a wedge against other minority groups.
They are always caught in a no-win position between whites and Black Americans. They are thought to be “white adjacent,” but of course they can never belong to the club. They are persistently racialized, yet they often don’t count in the American racial equation. The central, though often unspoken, question underlying all of this is: Are Asian-Americans injured, or injured enough, to deserve our national attention?
To ask this question is to reveal something about how this country thinks about a racial calculus based on damage and hierarchy. Asian-Americans exist in a weird but convenient lacuna in American politics and culture. If they register at all on the national consciousness, it is either as a foreign threat (the Yellow Peril, the Asian Tiger, the Spy, the Disease Vector) or as the domestic but ultimately disposable prism for deflecting or excusing racism against other minorities.
This recent onslaught of anti-Asian violence can partly be attributed to our former president, who spoke nonstop of the “Chinese virus” and even the “kung flu,” but he could not have rallied the kind of hatred that he did without this country’s long history of systemic and cultural racism against people of Asian descent.
For our histories are more entangled than how we tell them. Few people know that many of the same families that amassed wealth through slavery also profited from the opium trade in China; that at least 17 Chinese residents were the targeted victims of one of the worst mass lynchings in American history in Los Angeles’s “Negro Alley” in 1871; that America’s immigration policy and ideas of citizenship were built on top of laws like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S. for 10 years; or that the “Model Minority” myth veils how Bhutanese- and Burmese-Americans experience poverty rates over 30 percent.
I think of James Baldwin’s words: “This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”
When it comes to Asian-American grief, do Americans want to know?
These past few weeks, it seems as if Americans have opened to a kind of knowing. As I saw these recent incidents of anti-Asian violence unfold in the news, I felt a profound sense of grief. But I also experienced something akin to relief. Maybe, I thought, now people will start to respond to anti-Asian violence with the same urgency they apply to other kinds of racism.
But then I started to feel a familiar queasiness in the pit of my stomach. Is this indeed what it takes? A political imagination (or, really, lack thereof) that predicates recognition on the price of visible harm?
There is something wrong with the way Americans think about who deserves social justice — as though attention to nonwhite groups, their histories and conditions, is only as pressing as the injuries that they have suffered. Racial justice is often couched in arcane, moralistic terms rather than understood as an ethical given in democratic participation.
It seems crazily naïve to suggest that we ought to learn, value and want to know about all of our countrymen out of respect rather than guilt. Yet while legitimizing racial and cultural differences exclusively in terms of injury may motivate reform in the short run, in the long term it feeds a politics of tribalism that erupts over and over again.
Two decades ago, I wrote in my book “The Melancholy of Race” that “we are a nation at ease with grievance but not with grief.” We still are. In the desire to move past racial troubles — in our eagerness to progress — we as a nation have been more focused on quantifying injury and shoring up identity categories than doing the harder work of confronting the enduring, ineffable, at times contradictory and messier wounds of American racism: how being hated and hating can look the same; how the lesson of powerlessness can teach justice or, perversely, the ugly pleasures of power; how the legacy of anger, shame and guilt is complex.
Unprocessed grief and unacknowledged racial dynamics continue to haunt our social relations. The discourse of racial identity has obscured the history of American racial entanglements. And why is entanglement important? Because the challenge of democracy is not about identifying with someone like yourself (that’s easy to do) nor about giving up your self-interest (that’s hard to ask). It’s about learning to see your self-interest as profoundly and inevitably entwined with the interests of others.
But is this a lesson Americans are prepared to hear?
Asian-Americans are tired of insisting that others care. The truth is that few are listening. All we can do is to continue to tell our truths, to know, even just for ourselves, that we are here. As the poet Rita Dove wrote, “Here, / it’s all yours, now — / but you’ll have / to take me, / too.”
Ms. Cheng is a comparative race scholar and author of “The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief” and “Ornamentalism.”
After a public outcry from people like Scott Willoughby, whose exorbitant electric bill is soon due, Gov. Greg Abbott said lawmakers should ensure Texans “do not get stuck with skyrocketing energy bills” caused by the storm.
By Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and Ivan Penn, Published Feb. 20, 2021, Updated Feb. 22, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/20/us/texas-storm-electric-bills.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage
SAN ANTONIO — As millions of Texans shivered in dark, cold homes over the past week while a winter storm devastated the state’s power grid and froze natural gas production, those who could still summon lights with the flick of a switch felt lucky.
Now, many of them are paying a severe price for it.
“My savings is gone,” said Scott Willoughby, a 63-year-old Army veteran who lives on Social Security payments in a Dallas suburb. He said he had nearly emptied his savings account so that he would be able to pay the $16,752 electric bill charged to his credit card — 70 times what he usually pays for all of his utilities combined. “There’s nothing I can do about it, but it’s broken me.”
Mr. Willoughby is among scores of Texans who have reported skyrocketing electric bills as the price of keeping lights on and refrigerators humming shot upward. For customers whose electricity prices are not fixed and are instead tied to the fluctuating wholesale price, the spikes have been astronomical.
The outcry elicited angry calls for action from lawmakers from both parties and prompted Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, to hold an emergency meeting with legislators on Saturday to discuss the enormous bills.
“We have a responsibility to protect Texans from spikes in their energy bills that are a result of the severe winter weather and power outages,” Mr. Abbott, who has been reeling after the state’s infrastructure failure, said in a statement after the meeting. He added that Democrats and Republicans would work together to make sure people “do not get stuck with skyrocketing energy bills.”
The electric bills are coming due at the end of a week in which Texans have faced a combination of crises caused by the frigid weather, beginning on Monday, when power grid failures and surging demand led to millions being left without electricity.
Natural gas producers were not prepared for the freeze either, and many people’s homes were cut off from heat. Now, millions of people are discovering that they have no safe water because of burst pipes, frozen wells or water treatment plants that have been knocked offline. Power has returned in recent days for all but about 60,000 Texans as the storm moved east, where it has also caused power outages in Mississippi, Louisiana, West Virginia and Ohio.
The steep electric bills in Texas are in part a result of the state’s uniquely unregulated energy market, which allows customers to pick their electricity providers among about 220 retailers in an entirely market-driven system.
Under some of the plans, when demand increases, prices rise. The goal, architects of the system say, is to balance the market by encouraging consumers to reduce their usage and power suppliers to create more electricity.
But when last week’s crisis hit and power systems faltered, the state’s Public Utilities Commission ordered that the price cap be raised to its maximum limit of $9 per kilowatt-hour, easily pushing many customers’ daily electric costs above $100. And in some cases, like Mr. Willoughby’s, bills rose by more than 50 times the normal cost.
Many of the people who have reported extremely high charges, including Mr. Willoughby, are customers of Griddy, a small company in Houston that provides electricity at wholesale prices, which can quickly change based on supply and demand.
The company passes the wholesale price directly to customers, charging an additional $9.99 monthly fee. Much of the time, the rate is considered affordable. But the model can be risky: Last week, foreseeing a huge jump in wholesale prices, the company encouraged all of its customers — about 29,000 people — to switch to another provider when the storm arrived. But many were unable to do so.
Katrina Tanner, a Griddy customer who lives in Nevada, Texas, said she had been charged $6,200 already this month, more than five times what she paid in all of 2020. She began using Griddy at a friend’s suggestion a couple of years ago and was pleased at the time with how simple it was to sign up.
As the storm rolled through during the past week, however, she kept opening the company’s app on her phone and seeing her bill “just rising, rising, rising,” Ms. Tanner said. Griddy was able to take the money she owed directly from her bank account, and she now has just $200 left. She suspects that she was only able to keep that much because her bank stopped Griddy from taking more.
Some lawmakers and consumer advocates said the price spikes had made it clear that customers did not understand the complicated terms of the company’s model.
“To the Texas Utilities Commission: What are you thinking, allowing the average type of household to sign up for this kind of program?” Tyson Slocum, the director of the energy program at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, said of Griddy. “The risk-reward is so out of whack that it never should have been permitted in the first place.”
Phil King, a Republican state lawmaker who represents an area west of Fort Worth, said some of his constituents who were on variable-rate contracts were complaining about bills in the thousands.
“When something like this happens, you’re in real trouble” with such contracts, Mr. King said. “There have got to be some emergency financial waivers and other actions taken until we can work through this and get to the bottom of it.”
Responding to its outraged customers, Griddy, too, appeared to try to shift anger to the Public Utilities Commission in a statement.
“We intend to fight this for, and alongside, our customers for equity and accountability — to reveal why such price increases were allowed to happen as millions of Texans went without power,” the statement said.
William W. Hogan, considered the architect of the Texas energy market design, said in an interview this past week that the high prices reflected the market performing as it was designed.
The rapid losses of power — more than a third of the state’s available electricity production was offline at one point — increased the risk that the entire system would collapse, causing prices to rise, said Mr. Hogan, a professor of global energy policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
“As you get closer and closer to the bare minimum, these prices get higher and higher, which is what you want,” Mr. Hogan said.
Robert McCullough, an energy consultant in Portland, Ore., and a critic of Mr. Hogan’s, said that allowing the market to drive energy policy with few protections for consumers was “idiotic” and that similar actions had devastated retailers and consumers following the California energy crisis of 2000 and 2001.
“The similar situation caused a wave of bankruptcies as retailers and customers discovered that they were on the hook for bills 30 times their normal levels,” Mr. McCullough said. “We are going to see this again.”
DeAndré Upshaw said his power had been on and off in his Dallas apartment throughout the storm. A lot of his neighbors had it worse, so he felt fortunate to have electricity and heat, inviting some neighbors over to warm up.
Then Mr. Upshaw, 33, saw that his utility bill from Griddy had risen to more than $6,700. He usually pays about $80 a month this time of year.
He had been trying to conserve power as the storm raged on, but it didn’t seem to matter. He also signed up to switch to another utility company, but he is still being charged until the change goes into effect on Monday.
“It’s a utility — it’s something that you need to live,” Mr. Upshaw, 33, said. “I don’t feel like I’ve used $6,700 of electricity in the last decade. That’s not a cost that any reasonable person would have to pay for five days of intermittent electric service being used at the bare minimum.”
As Texas slowly thaws out, Ms. Tanner is allowing herself a small luxury after days of keeping the thermostat at 60 degrees.
“I finally decided the other day, if we were going to pay these high prices, we weren’t going to freeze,” she said. “So I cranked it up to 65.”