For Immediate Release
Press Contact: Herb Mintz
Photos and Interviews: Steve Zeltzer
To view or participate, a Zoom registration is required.
After registration, participants will receive a Zoom invitation. Events are subject to change or cancellation due to COVID-19 related issues. Check our website at laborfest.net prior to each event or for a calendar of all events.
LaborFest is the premier labor cultural arts and film festival in the United States. LaborFest recognizes the role of working people in the building of America and making it work even in this time of COVID-19. The festival is self-funded with contributions from unions and other organizations that support and celebrate the contributions of working people.
Sincere Greetings of Peace:
The “In the Spirit of Mandela Coalition*” invites your participation and endorsement of the planned October 2021 International Tribunal. The Tribunal will be charging the United States government, its states, and specific agencies with human and civil rights violations against Black, Brown, and Indigenous people.
The Tribunal will be charging human and civil rights violations for:
• Racist police killings of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people,
• Hyper incarcerations of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people
• Political incarceration of Civil Rights/National Liberation era revolutionaries and activists, as well as present day activists,
• Environmental racism and its impact on Black, Brown, and Indigenous people,
• Public Health racism and disparities and its impact on Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, and
• Genocide of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people as a result of the historic and systemic charges of all the above.
The legal aspects of the Tribunal will be led by Attorney Nkechi Taifa along with a powerful team of seasoned attorneys from all the above fields. Thirteen jurists, some with international stature, will preside over the 3 days of testimonies. Testimonies will be elicited form impacted victims, expert witnesses, and attorneys with firsthand knowledge of specific incidences raised in the charges/indictment.
The 2021 International Tribunal has a unique set of outcomes and an opportunity to organize on a mass level across many social justice arenas. Upon the verdict, the results of the Tribunal will:
• Codify and publish the content and results of the Tribunal to be offered in High Schools and University curriculums,
• Provide organized, accurate information for reparation initiatives and community and human rights work,
• Strengthen the demand to free all Political Prisoners and establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission mechanism to lead to their freedom,
• Provide the foundation for civil action in federal and state courts across the United States,
• Present a stronger case, building upon previous and respected human rights initiatives, on the international stage,
• Establish a healthy and viable massive national network of community organizations, activists, clergy, academics, and lawyers concerned with challenging human rights abuses on all levels and enhancing the quality of life for all people, and
• Establish the foundation to build a “Peoples’ Senate” representative of all 50 states, Indigenous Tribes, and major religions.
Endorsements are $25. Your endorsement will add to the volume of support and input vital to ensuring the success of these outcomes moving forward, and to the Tribunal itself. It will be transparently used to immediately move forward with the Tribunal outcomes.
We encourage you to add your name and organization to attend the monthly Tribunal updates and to sign on to one of the Tribunal Committees. (3rd Saturday of each month from 12 noon to 2 PM eastern time). Submit your name by emailing: email@example.com
Please endorse now: http://spiritofmandela.org/endorse/
Dr. A’isha Mohammad
– Coordinating Committee
Created in 2018, In the Spirit of Mandela Coalition is a growing grouping of organizers, academics, clergy, attorneys, and organizations committed to working together against the systemic, historic, and ongoing human rights violations and abuses committed by the USA against Black, Brown, and Indigenous People. The Coalition recognizes and affirms the rich history of diverse and militant freedom fighters Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela, Graca Machel Mandela, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and many more. It is in their Spirit and affirming their legacy that we work.
Mandla Mandela backs BDS Coalition pro-Palestine ’protest’ ahead of Israeli ZIM ship docking in Durban port on or about July 10, 2021https://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/gauteng/mandla-mandela-backs-bds-coalition-pro-palestine-protest-ahead-of-israeli-ship-docking-in-durban-0215bbd0-3159-4051-b725-75e843763e34By Sihle Mlambo
Durban - The pro-Palestine South African Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Coalition (SA BDS Coalition) has received support from Inkosi Mandla Mandela ahead of planned protest action in opposition to an Israeli-owned ship unloading cargo at the Durban port on July 10.
Plans were already afoot to bar the Israeli-owned ZIM Shanghai shipping line from unloading cargo at the Durban harbour on Saturday, July 10, but these have been shelved following President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ban on gatherings as part of the new adjusted alert level 4 regulations that he announced on Sunday.However, the campaign has also received backing from Inkosi Mandela who said that the BDS movement constituted “the most powerful weapon in our hands” to end the occupation of Palestinian lands by the “Apartheid Israel” regime.
“Last month our dockworker heroes in Durban harbour refused to offload cargo from a ship carrying goods from Apartheid Israel. We call on Transnet management to deny docking rights to the Israeli owned ZIM shipping line.
“We also call on our gallant labour unions especially the dockworker unions to refuse to handle any goods emanating from Apartheid Israel especially the illegal settlements,” Inkosi Mandela said.
He said that with the ZIM Shanghai shipping line expected at the Durban harbour in early July, organisations involved in opposing it from offloading cargo should be vigilant for shifting dates as a means to foil their attempts.
Nadia Meer, an activist and member of the SA BDS Coalition, said that although the gathering of civil society for protest action was not possible, that did not mean that there would be nothing done.
“The workers will still be taking a stand and they will be planning action.“We are exploring other options and will confirm once we have direction from workers on what they are doing, things that are possible like picketing with distanced spacing, doing this from our vehicles may proceed in addition to action by fishermen on boats,” Meer said.
We hope all is well with you.
We are happy to announce that the video recording of "No Life Like It: A A Tribute to the Revolutionary Activism of Ernie Tate" is now available for viewing on LeftStreamed
Please share the link with your comrades and friends.
All the best,
Photo from San Francisco rally and march in support of Palestine Saturday, May 15, 2021
Stand with Palestine!
Say NO to apartheid!
Join the global movement in solidarity with the Palestinian people.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Contact: Governor's Press Office
Friday, May 28, 2021
Governor Newsom Announces Clemency Actions, Signs Executive Order for Independent Investigation of Kevin Cooper Case
SACRAMENTO – Governor Gavin Newsom today announced that he has granted 14 pardons, 13 commutations and 8 medical reprieves. In addition, the Governor signed an executive order to launch an independent investigation of death row inmate Kevin Cooper’s case as part of the evaluation of Cooper’s application for clemency.
The investigation will review trial and appellate records in the case, the facts underlying the conviction and all available evidence, including the results of the recently conducted DNA tests previously ordered by the Governor to examine additional evidence in the case using the latest, most scientifically reliable forensic testing.
The text of the Governor’s executive order can be found here:
The California Constitution gives the Governor the authority to grant executive clemency in the form of a pardon, commutation or reprieve. These clemency grants recognize the applicants’ subsequent efforts in self-development or the existence of a medical exigency. They do not forgive or minimize the harm caused.
The Governor regards clemency as an important part of the criminal justice system that can incentivize accountability and rehabilitation, increase public safety by removing counterproductive barriers to successful reentry, correct unjust results in the legal system and address the health needs of incarcerated people with high medical risks.
A pardon may remove counterproductive barriers to employment and public service, restore civic rights and responsibilities and prevent unjust collateral consequences of conviction, such as deportation and permanent family separation. A pardon does not expunge or erase a conviction.
A commutation modifies a sentence, making an incarcerated person eligible for an earlier release or allowing them to go before the Board of Parole Hearings for a hearing at which Parole Commissioners determine whether the individual is suitable for release.
A reprieve allows individuals classified by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation as high medical risk to serve their sentences in appropriate alternative placements in the community consistent with public health and public safety.
The Governor weighs numerous factors in his review of clemency applications, including an applicant’s self-development and conduct since the offense, whether the grant is consistent with public safety and in the interest of justice, and the impact of a grant on the community, including crime victims and survivors.
While in office, Governor Newsom has granted a total of 86 pardons, 92 commutations and 28 reprieves.
The Governor’s Office encourages victims, survivors, and witnesses to register with CDCR’s Office of Victims and Survivors Rights and Services to receive information about an incarcerated person’s status. For general Information about victim services, to learn about victim-offender dialogues, or to register or update a registration confidentially, please visit:
www.cdcr.ca.gov/Victim_Services/ or call 1-877-256-6877 (toll free).
Copies of the gubernatorial clemency certificates announced today can be found here:
Additional information on executive clemency can be found here:
Questions and comments may be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeff Bezos has at least $180 Billion!
9 minutes 29 seconds
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
By Lindsay Crouse, June 2, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/02/opinion/shacarri-richardson-drug-test-marijuana.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage
Sha’Carri Richardson, the 21-year-old American sprinter whose breakout victory in the 100-meter dash at the U.S. track and field Olympic trials in Oregon last month transformed her into an overnight star, posted a plaintive message on Twitter on Thursday afternoon: “I am human.”
What she was referring to became clear when news broke that the United States Anti-Doping Agency was suspending her for a month, after she tested positive for marijuana. Ms. Richardson says she used the drug after a reporter told her about the death of her biological mother. (Recreational marijuana is legal in the state of Oregon, where she was at the time.) Now, she’s out of the 100-meter dash at the Tokyo Olympics.
In her tweet, Ms. Richardson pointed out the obvious, and yet it needed to be said: She is human. Olympians are capable of superhuman feats of athleticism — but does that mean we must punish them when they prove to be fallible like the rest of us, after all?
Sometimes it seems that way. The best athletes in the world are already under extraordinary pressure to perform — but we require extraordinary conduct from them in parts of their lives that have nothing to do with their sports.
Of course, marijuana is a banned substance. Athletes are responsible for everything they put in their bodies, and for ensuring they comply with the rules. Ms. Richardson knew it might jeopardize her Olympic future.
“I’m not making an excuse or looking for any empathy,” Ms. Richardson told the “Today” show Friday morning, as she apologized to her fans, her family and her sponsors. She acknowledged that the news of her mother’s death had thrown her, and explained the pressure of having to “go in front of the world and put on a face and hide my pain.” She added, “I know that I can’t hide myself, so at least in some type of way I was just trying to hide my pain.”
It is devastating to think of the lengths that our best athletes go to handle their pain. Tiger Woods, who tested positive for marijuana, pain medications and sleep drugs when he was arrested for driving under the influence in 2017, said he was suffering from insomnia and pain from his fourth back operation. Suzy Favor Hamilton, the nine-time N.C.A.A. champion, suffered from depression after she retired from her athletic career; it led to scandal following the revelation that she’d been working as an escort. Olympian Raven Saunders talked recently about wanting to drive off the road two years after the 2016 Olympics. Michael Phelps has been public about his mental health struggles for years. (A photo of him smoking marijuana was published in 2009; he lost a sponsorship from Kellogg’s.)
We don’t just expect our Olympians to be incredible athletes. We expect them to be role models and to adhere to impossibly high levels of self-discipline, work ethics, and sportsmanship that have nothing to do with their actual job. Women, especially women of color, face even higher expectations.
Gwen Berry, a track and field Olympian who is facing criticism from conservative lawmakers for turning away from the American flag on the medal podium during the national anthem at the Olympic Trials, told me Ms. Richardson was being held to an impossible standard.
“When you are a young Black athlete, and when you come from hardship, the first thing you need is people to support you, and not just capitalize off you, off your potential,” Ms. Berry said. “She made a bad decision because of pain, because of trauma, and she’s a girl — she still needs help. Instead she’s being punished.”
Part of the issue is the rules themselves. Anti-doping policies at the national and world levels, while well-meaning and intended to catch cheaters, are complex, and they are often outdated. The World Anti-Doping Agency’s prohibition of marijuana is more than a decade old; marijuana has gained more acceptance since, and is legal in many states.
It’s also worth noting — though it wasn’t the issue in Ms. Richardson’s case — that tests are now so sensitive, they can pick up trace amounts of banned substances from unexpected sources, as small as a picogram, or trillionth of a gram. That means contamination in our food or prescribed drugs can lead to positive tests for athletes who did nothing more than take a perfectly allowable medication or eat meat from animals treated with a growth steroid. It’s becoming increasingly challenging to avoid banned substances and still live in the real world. (I’ve wondered how many of us mortals would pass a doping test if we took one today.)
The World Anti-Doping Agency made reforms in May, but the system often presumes that athletes are guilty — excluding them from competition, often for long stretches of time — until they can prove themselves innocent. That’s not how justice should work.
Like many Black public figures, Ms. Richardson is celebrated when she succeeds, but many are quick to pass judgment when there’s the slightest transgression. Ms. Richardson grew up navigating adversity that is either ordinary or extraordinary, depending on where you fall on the American inequality gap — but she persevered. When she signed her professional contract, she said her first thought was taking care of her family.
For Black athletes, Ms. Berry said, the pressure to be “perfect” is intense. “If we aren’t, we get everything taken from us,” she said. “We have to work twice as hard in society and in athletics, we’re not respected otherwise. … We have no room for error. We have no room to grieve. We are not supported. And that’s the problem. It’s because we are not equal.”
Ms. Richardson has accepted the ban, so anyone rooting for the rules should be satisfied. But a system that punishes athletes for being human is not a just system.
The installation in the heart of Madison Square Park is the artist’s memorial to another war — the one against nature.
By Holland Cotter, July 1, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/01/arts/design/maya-lin-ghost-forest.html?action=click&module=Editors%20Picks&pgtype=Homepage
On a sultry summer day the trees across the street from my Bronx apartment are deep in conversation. Trees are, science tells us, social beings and do some of the same things we humans do, at least when we’re acting our best. They trade tips about health, news about weather. They nourish, and protect, and support each other. They support fellow beings too: birds, insects, us. They live sane lives. They generate excellent karma.
Unlike us. In a goes-around-comes-around universe, the karma we’re producing — through competitive greed, unthinking waste and targeted malice — is killing the world around us. We’re at war with the planet and everything on it, trees included.
The artist and architect Maya Lin began her career with a response to a war. Her 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, a blade of black granite slashed into American soil, commemorates a “foreign” war that became an internal one and divided the nation. Her new installation, “Ghost Forest,” on view in Madison Square Park in Manhattan through Nov. 14, is commemorative too. It’s a sky-reaching memorial to a war in progress directed against everything we call Nature.
Is “directed against” too active a phrase? Some people simply don’t know that human-sourced climate change exists. Others underestimate its gravity. Still others — a recent United States president — dismisses it as a fiction. In not dissimilar ways, we ignored or downplayed the Vietnam War in its early phases, until protests got really noisy, pictures of the My Lai massacre leaked out, and guys we’d partied with in high school came home in body bags.
Now, as then, cluelessness and denial are hard to sustain. Temperatures are climbing, shores are flooding, fields are shriveling up. Entire species — four-footed, winged, finned and rooted — are suddenly M.I.A., and the casualty list is growing. Yet, in the United States, public protest against climate breakdown is still sporadic and tepid, which is why every resistant gesture feels crucial, as “Ghost Forest” does.
Commissioned by the Madison Square Park Conservancy, “Ghost Forest” is basically a reconstituted patch of damaged nature. From the coastal Pine Barrens of New Jersey, Lin brought to Manhattan 49 full-grown Atlantic white cedars, each around 40 feet tall, and planted them together at the center of a bosky Madison Square Park. In the context of the park’s arboreal luxe they make an odd sight, because they’re leafless, and clearly dead or dying.
They’d been harvested from a habitat infiltrated by salt water, a result of climate change. Salt water is poison for trees; it rots them from within. Sick beyond saving, the cedars now in the park had been cleared from their original home to make room for a regeneration effort.
Although Lin was trained as an architect — she recently redesigned the Neilson Library at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. — her most memorable public work has been sculpture, and has drawn on the natural world as both a medium and a theme. In 2009, at the Storm King Art Center, 60 miles north of Manhattan, she created, from packed earth and grass, an 11-acre low-rise landscape of gently swelling hills, the forms inspired by ocean waves and the surrounding Hudson Valley mountains.
“My affinity has always been toward sculpting the earth,” she wrote in her autobiographical book, “Boundaries,” published in 2000, “This impulse has shaped my entire body of work.”
Since that book appeared, the focus on planetary survival has sharpened dramatically. Climate justice, intersecting with other social justice initiatives, is — in Europe, for sure — among the 21st century’s frontline activist movements.
If “Ghost Forest” isn’t, technically, activist art — like “Wave Field” it’s closer to the “environmental art” of an earlier time — its stark image of terrestrial loss is motored by the same urgency as climate justice resistance.
Still, it takes a few minutes, once you’re in the park, for the image to fully register. From a distance, the transplanted cedars blend into the larger arboreal fabric. Then tonal contrasts begin to sort out: The trunks of the park’s living trees are loamy browns and blacks; those of the cedars, a dry gray-going-white. (This difference was immediately striking when the installation opened in May, before the park had fully leafed, and probably will be again as summer turns to fall.)
Another contrast: Glance upward while standing under the park’s resident trees and you see an overhang of green, dense enough to keep off rain; look up while standing under the cedars and you see open sky. Whatever foliage they once had is long gone, and their branches seem to have been shaved away. Only a few remain, like thin sticking-out arms.
There’s no question that Lin intended “Ghost Forest” as an emblem of profound injury. But another image comes through too: an image of sociability, of a community of personalities, a congregation of spirits.
To produce it, she has carefully choreographed the placement of the cedars. A few line up in rows like cathedral columns. But most are in asymmetrical groupings, the equivalent of conversational clusters, of a kind you might find at parties and neighborly gatherings, and of a kind that trees in the wild actually form for purposes of communicating through their surfaces and the sharing of nutrients through their roots.
In addition, the “Ghost Forest” project comes with what Lin refers to as “advocacy components.” She has arranged a fall planting of a thousand trees throughout the five boroughs to offset the carbon used in moving the cedars to Manhattan. And she maintains an online database, “What is Missing?,” which monitors the disappearance of plant and animal species. (She calls the website, whatismissing.org, the “last memorial.”)
But what’s most moving — and, for that reason, most politically effective — about “Ghost Forest,” is the way it personalizes its subject. Without sentimentalizing or metaphorizing, it presents trees as the living, breathing, dying relatable beings and karmic companions they are, ones I observe, with love, from my Bronx window, and ones that John Ashbery celebrates in these lines from one of his early poems, “Some Trees”:
These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chanceTo meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees tryTo tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.
Face coverings are coming off, though not for everyone.
By Jacob Bernstein, July 3, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/03/style/are-masks-a-new-signifier-of-social-class.html?action=click&module=Editors%20Picks&pgtype=Homepage
On a recent Sunday night at Le Bilboquet, a see-and-be-seen restaurant in the Hamptons, well-heeled diners nibbled on $475 tins of Osetra caviar. A handsome man showed off his gold Audemars Piguet watch to his sparkly female companion. A party of 10 in polo shirts and striped rompers danced to a tropical house remix of Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”
They were all unmasked, while the waiters, bartenders and other servers kept their mouths and noses covered.
A similar scene unfolded at the Gucci store in East Hampton, where shoppers removed their masks upon reading the door sign stating that vaccinated customers could enter without face coverings. Inside, they were attended to by store clerks in blue-and-white surgical masks, per company policy.
In the weeks since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its mask guidelines to allow fully vaccinated people to take their masks off in most indoor settings, a stark divide has emerged, particularly in wealthier enclaves where services are at a premium.
Those who are still wearing masks tend to be members of the service class — store clerks, waiters, janitors, manicurists, security guards, receptionists, hair stylists and drivers — while those without face coverings are often the well-to-do customers being wined and dined.
Employers are hesitant to discuss their mask policies, but there are sensible reasons for requiring staffers to keep their masks on.
Just under 50 percent of people in the United States are fully vaccinated. And coronavirus variants, some of which are highly infectious and may be more resistant to vaccines, are on the rise, said Dr. Lisa Maragakis, an epidemiologist and associate professor at Johns Hopkins University.
Food servers, retail clerks, grocery cashiers and other public-facing workers interact all day with customers, which can put their health (and the health of their customers) at risk. This creates not only potential liability issues for employers, but also could hamstring a business at a time of worker shortages.
Even at establishments that give vaccinated employees the choice to take their masks off, many are keeping them on. “Who knows who has had their shot and who hasn’t,” said Michelle Booker, a store clerk from the Bronx who works at a Verizon store in Midtown Manhattan. She was wearing her mask on a recent Tuesday, although the company permits vaccinated employees to go without masks. “I don’t believe half of the people who come in,” she said. “I’m still terrified.”
And from a public relations standpoint, seeing employees with masks sends a message about how management regards the health of its customers and staff. “Their workers are serious professionals who take safety seriously,” said Erin Vearncombe, a professor at the University of Toronto who studies the sociology of dress codes.
The resulting class divide may not always be intentional, but it still can be jarring to see how masks have emerged as another symbol of inequality from the pandemic.
At an Apple store in Midtown on a recent Friday, mask-free customers could be seen buying $1,500 iPhones from masked salespeople who may not make that much in a week. At a nearby Sweetgreens, food workers in black masks and matching aprons, and who were mostly people of color, prepared $14 berry and burrata salads for a largely white clientele.
“It sends a message — one that’s been internalized on both sides — that the body of the mask wearer is ‘riskier’ than the body of the consumer,” Dr. Vearncombe said. “It shows that certain groups have, and even deserve, more civil liberties than others.”
Some workers argue that the mask double standard — one rule for customers; another for staff — is not just discriminatory, but defies logic.
“Customers have to be vaccinated to go maskless, but we can’t ask for proof,” said Jose de la Rosa, 26, who works behind the counter at the Juice Generation store in Times Square. “And we have workers who are fully vaccinated, can prove it and still have to wear them. It’s odd.”
As more Americans get vaccinated, some establishments have adopted a single policy for both staff and customers, allowing anyone who has been fully vaccinated to ditch the mask.
A diverse array of stores — including Louis Vuitton, Verizon, Dior, Target and Home Depot — have this policy at all their stores in the United States. Starbucks recently announced that vaccinated workers would be able to remove their masks starting July 5..
But for now, a mask divide remains at many places. On a recent afternoon in Hudson Yards, Mark Pasektsky, 49, a public relations strategist, was shopping for shirts at the Theory store. The clerks that were helping him wore masks. He did not.
“It’s weird, right?” he said. “On one level, you can’t completely blame employers. How do you comfortably institute a policy that protects everyone? You can’t answer it because there is no answer. But the psychology behind the other approach is very curious. Why are they making employees wear masks while the customers do not? Everyone is just confused.”
Andrew Delke, a white former Nashville police officer, was sentenced to three years in jail after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the shooting of Daniel Hambrick in 2018. Mr. Delke had faced a murder charge.
By Michael Levenson, July 2, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/02/us/nashville-police-shooting-delke-manslaughter.html?action=click&module=In%20Other%20News&pgtype=Homepage
The mother of a Black man who was fatally shot while he was running away from a white Nashville police officer begged a judge on Friday not to accept a plea deal that would send the former officer to jail for only three years.
The mother, Vickie Hambrick, cried and screamed as she pounded and knocked over a courtroom lectern, saying she had not been consulted before prosecutors agreed to allow the former officer, Andrew Delke, to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter for shooting her son, Daniel Hambrick, 25, in the back on July 26, 2018.
Mr. Delke, 27, had been facing trial this month on a first-degree murder charge that could have resulted in a life sentence.
“I can’t believe this, Judge, I can’t believe this,” Ms. Hambrick said in Nashville criminal court. “What if it was your child instead of my child? It would have been a different story.”
Ms. Hambrick, who is legally blind, was held back by her lawyer and others as she knocked over the lectern and lunged in Mr. Delke’s direction, knocking over a computer monitor and briefly disrupting the hearing. Ms. Hambrick and her relatives said they had wanted the case to go to trial on the murder charge.
“We didn’t get a chance!” a man wearing a “Hambrick Strong” shirt declared as Ms. Hambrick, her family members and others were led out of the courtroom. “Three years!”
When the hearing reconvened, the judge, Monte D. Watkins, accepted the deal, finding that Mr. Delke had freely agreed to plead guilty to manslaughter. He sentenced Mr. Delke to three years in jail.
Mr. Delke’s lawyers said that with standard jail credits, Mr. Delke would serve about a year and a half in jail and would then be allowed to return home without probation or parole.
Glenn R. Funk, the Nashville district attorney, defended the deal after the hearing, saying he was concerned that a jury might not have convicted Mr. Delke had the case gone to trial. He noted that Mr. Hambrick was holding a gun when he was shot.
“Members of my office on the trial team acknowledged that there was a well over 50 percent chance that this jury would hang,” Mr. Funk said after the hearing, adding that he had been warned that a jury could have split along racial lines. “And no verdict, no judgment, no accountability — the emotion that we saw in this courtroom today would have been played out 100-fold, if there had been no accountability in this case.”
Before Mr. Delke’s guilty plea, a Nashville police officer had never been convicted in the on-duty shooting of a Black man, Mr. Funk said.
“Well, now there has been,” Mr. Funk said. “He’s been convicted. He’s a convicted felon, a convicted felon for the rest of his life.”
Mr. Delke, who resigned from the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department on Thursday, had been serving on a juvenile crime task force and was assigned to look for stolen cars and known juvenile offenders on the day he shot Mr. Hambrick, prosecutors said.
While patrolling in North Nashville, Mr. Delke began to follow a white Chevrolet Impala that had stopped at a stop sign. After running the Impala’s license plate and learning that the car was not stolen, Mr. Delke continued to follow the car and turned on his blue lights, prosecutors said. During the pursuit, he lost track of the Impala and never saw the driver or anyone inside the car, prosecutors said.
Later, Mr. Delke pulled into the parking lot after seeing a different white car drive into the lot, prosecutors said. Several people were in the area, and one of them, Mr. Hambrick, began to run, prosecutors said. Mr. Delke immediately began to run after Mr. Hambrick, yelling at him to stop.
During the chase, Mr. Delke saw that Mr. Hambrick had a gun in his hand and yelled at him to “stop,” “drop the gun” and “drop the gun or I’ll shoot,” prosecutors said.
When Mr. Hambrick continued to run and did not drop the gun, Mr. Delke stopped, aimed his gun at Mr. Hambrick and fired four shots from about 51 feet away, prosecutors said. One shot struck Mr. Hambrick in the back, another hit him in the torso and a third hit him in the head. The fourth shot missed, prosecutors said.
A medical examiner determined that Mr. Hambrick had died of multiple gunshot wounds and that the manner of death was homicide, prosecutors said. The episode was captured on surveillance video.
In court, Mr. Delke said he was pleading guilty because he recognized that his use of deadly force “was not reasonably necessary under all circumstances.”
“I recognize that what happened on July 26, 2018, was tragic,” he said. “Ms. Hambrick lost her son that day, and I am responsible for her loss. These are facts that I will have to live with for the rest of my life.”
He added that “not a day has gone by that I have not thought about my actions.”
“I am deeply sorry for the harm my actions caused,” Mr. Delke said, “and I hope that Mr. Hambrick’s family will obtain some comfort from my acceptance of responsibility, and my guilty plea today.”
After Mr. Delke spoke, Ms. Hambrick cursed at him, told him she did not accept his apology and screamed, “I hate you.”
Joy Kimbrough, Ms. Hambrick’s lawyer, said her client had learned of the plea agreement from Mr. Funk only this week and was shocked that prosecutors had agreed to the deal.
“I am against the way the state and the defense joined hands to protect this racist, biased, anti-Black criminal system,” Ms. Hambrick said in a statement that Ms. Kimbrough read aloud in court.
In 2019, Mr. Hambrick’s family sued Mr. Delke and the city, contending that the shooting was motivated in part by a culture of “fear, violence, racism, and impunity” in the Police Department. The lawsuit sought $30 million in punitive damages. In March, Nashville officials agreed to settle the lawsuit for $2.25 million.
In the statement Ms. Kimbrough read in court on Friday, Ms. Hambrick described her son as the “love of my life.” She said he had recognized from an early age that his mother was blind and had always said that he would take care of her.
“My son was my eyes,” Ms. Hambrick’s statement said. “There is not one hour that goes by that I do not think of Daniel.”
Vaccines protect against the variants, but conflicting advice from health authorities about masks has bewildered a worried public.
By Tara Parker-Pope, Published June 30, 2021, Updated July 1, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/30/well/live/delta-variant-vaccines-masks.html?action=click&module=Science%20%20Technology&pgtype=Homepage
The World Health Organization wants everybody to wear masks, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says vaccinated people often don’t need to wear them.
So who do we listen to?
Virus experts and epidemiologists also offer mixed advice, but largely agree on one point: Whether a fully vaccinated person needs to wear a mask really depends on the circumstances and what’s happening in your community.
“At this point, thinking about wearing a mask is a little like dressing for the weather,” said Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech and one of the world’s leading experts on viral transmission. “You need to consider the caseload and vaccination rates wherever you’re going, what activity you’ll be doing, and your own health.”
But the new push to ask vaccinated people to mask up has sown confusion. Does the call for masking mean the vaccines don’t offer enough protection? Why is everyone so concerned about the Delta variant? And should vaccinated people be worried about breakthrough infections? Here are some answers.
Why is the W.H.O. telling vaccinated people to wear masks?
Mask mandates are largely intended to protect the unvaccinated — people who are vaccinated are already well protected by vaccines, and breakthrough infections are still very rare. But since you can’t always tell who is vaccinated and who is not, telling everyone to wear a mask can help stop the spread of the virus by people who are infected but don’t have any symptoms.
And while cases and deaths are falling in the United States, large parts of the world are still grappling with the rapid spread of the virus and many people remain unvaccinated. In the United States, 66 percent of adults have received at least one dose of vaccine. In addition, vaccines given in other parts of the world, like the Sinovac vaccine, have not performed as well against the variants as the vaccines available in the United States.
“W.H.O. is providing guidance for the whole world, and in areas where Delta is dominant, cases are high, vaccination rates are low, and the vaccines that have been distributed are less effective against Delta, it makes sense for vaccinated people to wear masks,” said Dr. Marr.
The C.D.C. director, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, on Wednesday stood by advice that people fully vaccinated against the coronavirus do not need to wear masks in most situations, but added that there are instances where local authorities might impose more stringent measures to protect the unvaccinated.
Dr. Marr said her advice to a fully vaccinated friend about mask wearing would be to follow local mask rules and to take extra precautions in certain situations.
“I would tell them that, in general, they do not need to wear a mask,” said Dr. Marr. “But they should continue to carry one with them for times when they are in a very crowded indoor setting for a long period of time, like air travel, where masks are required anyway, or a crowded movie theater, playhouse or concert venue, for example.”
If I’m vaccinated, should I be worried about the Delta variant?
The Delta variant, which was first identified in India, is worrisome because it is highly contagious and spreading rapidly around the globe. Unvaccinated people who are infected with Delta are twice as likely to be hospitalized as those infected with Alpha, the dominant variant in the United States that was first detected in Britain.
What has been surprising about the Delta variant is how easily it seems to be transmitted. In Australia, security cameras documented a brief encounter of two people passing each other in a shopping mall; one of them was unknowingly infected. The shoppers were facing each other at one point and breathed each other’s air for only seconds, which led to the second person getting infected. (The transmission was confirmed through genetic sequencing.) While such a brief encounter typically wouldn’t lead to transmission, the case signaled how important it is that people get vaccinated before the Delta variant spreads further.
The Delta variant now accounts for about one in every four infections in the United States, according to new estimates this week from the C.D.C.
But if you are among the vaccinated, most experts say you don’t need to be fearful. Studies show that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine offer 88 percent protection against the Delta variant, compared to 93 percent protection against Alpha. The Moderna vaccine has performed similarly to Pfizer in other studies, so it’s expected to give a similar level of protection against Delta. Moderna has said test tube studies using blood samples from vaccinated people showed the vaccine is still highly effective against the Delta variant, which caused only a “modest reduction” in virus-fighting antibodies in the samples.
A recent Public Health England study found that people who are partially vaccinated are 75 percent less likely to be hospitalized than an infected person who isn’t vaccinated. Those who are fully vaccinated are 94 percent less likely to be hospitalized.
“If you’ve had two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, like me, you should be protected against the Delta variant,” said Gregg Gonsalves, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health. “I could go maskless and feel fine about it from that perspective. I think for the U.S. — where we have states that have poor vaccination coverage and among populations who haven’t been vaccinated — the Delta variant is a problem.”
Dr. Gonsalves said that even though he is fully vaccinated, he will continue to mask up in the grocery store and other public spaces as we wait for more people to get vaccinated.
“Am I going to wear a mask among friends who are fully vaccinated? Probably not,” he said. “However, in public, I certainly will. This is about promoting a social norm: Right now there are enough people unvaccinated that we should be modeling good behavior, showing social solidarity.”
Does the Johnson & Johnson vaccine protect against the Delta variant?
Johnson & Johnson had lagged behind the other vaccine makers in collecting data about how its vaccine performed against the Delta variant. But the company on Thursday finally released results from two studies that showed its vaccine remained effective against the highly contagious variant. The company also found that antibodies stimulated by the vaccine grow in strength over time.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine initially was studied when new, more-contagious variants were circulating. It was 72 percent effective in the United States and 66.3 percent effective globally. Most important, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was 86 percent effective against severe disease. The vaccine showed only a small drop in potency against the Delta variant, the company said, although it didn’t go into further detail. You can read more about the Johnson & Johnson report here.
A Public Health England study found that the Astra Zeneca vaccine, which has performed similarly to the J&J shot, provided 60 percent protection against Delta, down from 66 percent against the Alpha variant.
What’s my risk of getting Covid-19 after I’m fully vaccinated?
Although the Covid vaccines are highly effective, no vaccine offers 100 percent protection. While breakthrough infections happen, they are extremely rare, and in most cases, breakthrough infections cause only mild illness.
The risk of being hospitalized or dying as a result of a breakthrough infection is minuscule (less than .003 percent), based on data collected from the C.D.C. As of June 21, more than 150 million people in the United States had been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. As of that date, the C.D.C. reported that 4,115 patients had Covid-19 vaccine breakthrough infections that resulted in hospitalization or death, including 3,907 who had been hospitalized and 750 who had died.
But because the risk of getting Covid-19 after vaccination isn’t zero, some health experts still advise that vaccinated people take reasonable precautions, like wearing a mask in crowded spaces.
People who live in areas with low vaccination rates may also want to consider wearing masks in public, where they are more likely to encounter an unvaccinated person than someone living in a highly vaccinated region.
In the United States, 63 percent of people 12 and older have received at least one dose and 54 percent are fully vaccinated. But in some cities like Seattle and San Francisco, more than 75 percent of those eligible are at least partially vaccinated. Many states in the Northeast, the West and Pacific Northwest have vaccinated more than 60 percent of the adult population. But the pace of vaccinations varies across the country. Several states in the South, including Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Arkansas, have vaccinated fewer than 45 percent of adults. You can learn more from The Times’s vaccine tracker.
Dr. Paul Offit, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine advisory panel, is fully vaccinated but still wears a mask when he rides the bus in Philadelphia, because the rules require it, as well as when he’s in a crowded and enclosed space. He masks up when he shops at the grocery store, because he doesn’t know the vaccination status of the other shoppers. But he also dines in restaurants, as long as the tables are spaced at least four feet apart and the servers are wearing masks.
And even though the risk of breakthrough infections for fully vaccinated people is very low, Dr. Offit said the risk goes up when you’re in a community where most people aren’t vaccinated, because it creates more opportunities for you to encounter the virus. He cites a study in the Netherlands of the measles vaccine, which like the Covid vaccine offers high levels of protection, that found an unvaccinated person was safer in a highly vaccinated community than a vaccinated person in an area with low vaccination rates.
“If you’re in a highly vaccinated community you have sort of a moat around you,” he said.
Dr. Offit said the problem with the current guidance about mask wearing in the United States is that it requires trust.
“You have to trust that the other people you’re coming into contact with are vaccinated if they’re not wearing a mask,” said Dr. Offit. “That’s a lot to trust. The same people who aren’t masked often aren’t vaccinated. Those two things usually go hand in hand. When you see people masked inside, they’re often the ones who are vaccinated.”
Dr. Marr added that everyone should be prepared for evolving guidance on masks, distancing and other precautions.
“We should be prepared for things to change as we learn more,” Dr. Marr said. “I know everyone wants this to be over or wants a one-size-fits-all rule, but we need to get used to things changing as the virus changes, vaccines roll out, public health responses in different countries shift, and scientists learn more. The 1918 flu pandemic lasted two years.”
At a time when climate change is making heat waves more frequent and more severe, trees are stationary superheroes: They can lower urban temperatures 10 lifesaving degrees, scientists say.
By Catrin Einhorn, Published July 2, 2021, Updated July 3, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/02/climate/trees-cities-heat-waves.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage§ion=Climate%20and%20Environment
DES MOINES — The trees were supposed to stay.
It didn’t matter that the owners of the squat building alongside were planning to redevelop the property. The four eastern red cedars stood on city land, where they had grown for the better part of a century.
“There’s no way these trees are coming down,” Shane McQuillan, who manages the city’s trees, recalled thinking. “The default position for us is, you don’t take out big trees to put in small trees.”
Here’s why: At a time when climate change is making heat waves more frequent and more severe, trees are stationary superheroes. Research shows that heat already kills more people in the United States than hurricanes, tornadoes and other weather-events, perhaps contributing to 12,000 deaths per year. Extreme heat this week in the Pacific Northwest and Canada has killed hundreds.
Trees can lower air temperature in city neighborhoods 10 lifesaving degrees, scientists have found. They also reduce electricity demand for air conditioning, not only sparing money and emissions, but helping avoid potentially catastrophic power failures during heat waves.
“Trees are, quite simply, the most effective strategy, technology, we have to guard against heat in cities,” said Brian Stone Jr., a professor of environmental planning at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
So, in Des Moines, Mr. McQuillan worked with the property owners and city planners to find a way to redevelop while keeping the trees.
But one day several months later, he got word that a crew was taking them down.
Mr. McQuillan raced to the site, just a couple blocks from his office. One tree had already been cut to a stump, and another was almost down. Mr. McQuillan halted the work and fought to stay calm. At first he assumed someone had taken matters into their own hands. But after investigating, he came to believe it was simply a mistake; the property had been leased for a restaurant and the tenants seemed sincerely unaware of the agreement.
“There’s a defeated feeling,” Mr. McQuillan said.
They were two losses in an enormous struggle. Versions of this story are playing out in cities across the country, including Boston, Atlanta, Cleveland, Chicago, Houston, Spokane and Los Angeles, according to the United States Forest Service.
Despite longstanding and ongoing efforts across the country to plant trees, communities in the United States are not adding to their total number or even maintaining it. Research shows that American cities and towns lose the canopy of 36 million trees every year.
‘A challenge to get trees to thrive in the city’
Considering the cast of characters in Des Moines, its urban forest should be thriving. The longtime mayor is an environmentalist. The director of public works hails trees as “the only infrastructure that add value over time.” A nonprofit group plants and tends the next generation of trees while giving green jobs and training to local teenagers.
In recent years, though, the larvae of an iridescent green beetle that arrived from across the ocean, the emerald ash borer, have claimed 6,000 of the city’s 8,000 public ash trees. A storm last year took out about 500 more of all kinds. Another big factor is the everyday losses: The tree felled to repair a water line underneath. The homeowner who removed a tree to build an extension or get more sun on the lawn. Countless new developments where trees were in the way. These are often mature trees whose canopy will take decades to replace.
Then, there are the bare-branched victims whose cause of death can only be guessed at: Not enough water? The extra-cold winter combined with all that street salt?
“It’s a challenge to get trees to thrive in the city,” said Phillip Rodbell, who leads a Forest Service team studying the social, economic and ecological impact of urban trees.
At the same time, American cities are facing a heat crisis: The largest are warming at twice the rate of the planet as a whole.
‘It’s hard for us to think of trees as actual infrastructure’
On an afternoon that felt too sweltering for June, a 14-year-old named Kiara Wright bent over a young honey locust along a busy road in Des Moines, carefully splashing water from two five-gallon buckets into the dry soil. The city was in drought, and abundant water is critical to trees for at least two years after the shock of transplanting.
Earlier in the spring Kiara had helped plant that season’s 500 trees, becoming fond enough of them to name a few: Sparkles, Linden, José. Now she was watering, mulching and pulling weeds for $10 an hour. Over the course of the summer, her small team would also learn about financial literacy and shadow people in various green jobs.
“We grow the trees and we grow the teens,” said Kacie Ballard, who coordinates the program for Trees Forever, a nonprofit group that is now planting almost all of the city’s street trees. “It’s cheesy but it’s true.”
Along with the environmental benefits of trees come economic opportunities.
“This is a field where the employers are begging,” said Jad Daley, president and chief executive of American Forests, a nonprofit group. “There is definitely a job waiting.”
Planting in Des Moines will resume in the fall, focusing on formerly redlined communities most in need of trees. Around the country, racist policies have left these neighborhoods especially bare and hot.
Leslie Berckes, director of programs at Trees Forever, hopes to get 1,000 trees in the ground by the end of the year, surpassing an agreement with the city. But the number still feels bittersweet. Four times that many are needed, on public and private land, to reach a state goal of increasing canopy 3 percent by 2050. Instead, she fears their efforts are not enough to stay even.
“We could be keeping pace if we wanted to,” Ms. Berckes said. “We need more money. I know it’s so boring to say.”
By all accounts the mayor, Frank Cownie, is trying. Des Moines has increased its $200,000 tree planting budget to $300,000 next year and $450,000 the following, with a goal of reaching $1 million. Its forestry department, with a budget of $2 million, employs a team of 13 arborists, up from 11 a couple years ago, who prune the city’s trees, extending their lives.
But it’s a tricky balancing act.
“You’ll hear, ‘Why are you doing this, you should be creating homes for the houseless,’” Mayor Cownie said. “Which we are.”
The crux of the problem, according to scientists and environmental planners, is that Americans, from everyday citizens to government officials, are often not fully aware of the benefits that trees provide.
In addition to reducing heat, trees filter out air pollution, suck up storm water, store carbon, nurture wildlife and even improve people’s mental and physical health.
“It’s hard for us to think of trees as actual infrastructure rather than an amenity, and because of that, we don’t allocate sufficient funds,” said Dr. Stone of the Georgia Institute of Technology. “If we think about it as actual infrastructure on par with investing in roads and sewers and everything else, those costs will become more acceptable to us.”
‘Trading one risk for another’
A tree’s shade, that sweet relief from solar radiation, is only part of its cooling power. Trees also evaporate water, pulling it from the ground and releasing it into the air through their leaves. That’s why walking through a forest, or just sitting in a playground surrounded by several large trees, feels more refreshing than the shade of a lone tree.
Carefully positioned trees can reduce a home’s energy costs by 25 percent, according to the Department of Energy. Nationwide, urban trees offer an estimated $18.3 billion in air pollution removal, carbon sequestration, lowered energy use in buildings and reduced emissions from power plants.
Still, across the country many people see trees as a nuisance or liability. They drop nuts, seeds and leaves. They buckle sidewalks. They are accused of destroying pipes — wrongly, according to scientists, who say that pipes crack from age, which only then leads nearby trees to send roots toward the leaking water. Some towns and cities avoid the perceived hassle altogether by not planting on the strip of lawn between the sidewalk and the street.
Occasionally, their limbs break or they blow over, posing real danger. With climate change increasing the intensity of storms, David Nowak, a senior scientist with the Forest Service who studies urban trees, acknowledges the risk. Trees close to houses need to be especially well monitored for weakness. But he points out that trees also block wind, reducing the force of storms.
“You’re trading one risk for another,” Dr. Nowak said. “Branches falling, and having to clean up branches, versus having to clean up broken rooftops.”
One major challenge is persuading property owners, who own a large share of the land in cities and towns, to plant and maintain trees in their yards. It’s important to choose the species carefully. Large shade trees offer more cooling and carbon storage than small ornamentals. For wildlife, oaks are usually the best bet, according to Doug Tallamy, a professor of entomology at the University of Delaware. They feed more than 900 species of caterpillars, which, in turn, feed birds, whose populations have plummeted.
Incentives can help, but tight budgets often keep them modest. In Louisville, Ky., which threw itself into planting more trees after it was found to be the fastest-warming large city in the country, residents can get a $30 “treebate,” up to three per household, for planting certain shade trees.
The director of public works in Des Moines, Jonathan Gano, came up with an idea to give away “tiny trees,” seedlings that look like mere sticks with roots. Once a year, residents can pick up five each.
“They’re tiny, yes,” Mr. Gano said. “They’re also practically free,” costing the city $1 per seedling.
“You could have 99 percent mortality and still be in the money 20 years from now on canopy,” Mr. Gano said. “I planted a bunch on my property and about 50 percent of them have survived. One of them’s 11 feet tall now.”
When rumors of a diamond find hit social media, thousands of jobless South Africans rushed to a sleepy village. The government’s claim that the discovery was actually quartz was met with suspicion.
By John Eligon, Photographs by Joao Silva, July 4, 2021
Using picks and shovels to search for precious stones in KwaHlathi, South Africa.
KWAHLATHI, South Africa — Sbusiso Molefe stretched the pickax high above his head and hacked into the clumpy black dirt around his feet. He took a few more vigorous whacks into the edges of the shallow crater he had dug at the bottom of a hillside, before scooping up a handful of loose dirt and shaking it in search of the sparkle of a gem.
The rumor that a herdsman had found clear stones resembling diamonds in the soil of a grassy, tree-filled slope last month lured thousands of South Africans to KwaHlathi, a sleepy village in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal where cattle roam freely.
Coming by taxi and by car, many from hours away, they dreamed of a turn of luck in a nation whose persistent struggles with joblessness have reached new heights amid the pandemic.
No one who came seemed the least deterred by the widespread skepticism that the stones were really diamonds.
Two days of strenuous digging had yielded four stones for Mr. Molefe, 41, who conceded that he had no clue whether they were actually diamonds.
“I’m feeling desperate,” he said. “We are just hoping. If they are real diamonds, it means we are winning.”
The diamond rush has completely transformed KwaHlathi, where the chief estimates that about 4,000 families reside.
Cattle once grazed on the digging field, which sits on traditional land owned by the chief and was until recently covered with Sweet thorn trees and grass. Now, it looks like a bare, cratered moon — a treacherous terrain of holes, many of them the size of graves.
The chief said he was none too happy about what the diggers were doing to the land, but he understood their plight and did not intervene.
Mr. Molefe came here after reading on social media that diamonds had been discovered in the field, less than an hour from his rural home village. It sounded too good to be true, but he had to check it out.
He had been without a job since October when the textile factory where he worked as a supervisor burned down. With his job search hitting dead ends, he has been subsisting on social grants totaling less than 1,100 rand ($77) a month, a quarter of what he had earned at the factory. Staples like beef, milk and butter were luxuries he could no longer afford.
“As the man of the house, it makes me feel less than,” he said of the difficulty of providing for his three children.
Unemployment in South Africa is at 32.6 percent, the highest level recorded since the government began producing quarterly labor force reports in 2008. Among young people, the situation is even more dire: About three of every four South African youths are without a job.
Those statistics translate into all manner of odd jobs — and risky ones, like venturing into abandoned mines, that have proved deadly. They also help explain the long-shot appeal of KwaHlathi and its purported diamonds.
A satellite village of sorts sprouted here. Many diamond seekers wrapped themselves in blankets and slept in the holes they dug. Vendors sold biscuits, sweet corn kernels and kota — a South African street food of white bread, fries and bologna. Music blasted from cars while some people cracked jokes and sipped beer. And there was no shortage of merchants looking to cash in on their newly extracted finds, which they insisted were precious stones.
“Diamonds! Diamonds!” some people yelled.
“I’m selling,” others said quietly, offering stones for 100 rand ($7) to more than 600 rand, the prices revealing both their own doubts and their desperation.
While it was economic hardship that brought many here, the scene still felt like one big carnival, an escape from the hopelessness of a dour job market. People huddled to examine stones and celebrate their finds.
“It’s given them the freedom not to stress about something,” said Tshepang Molefi, 38, surveying the activity in the field around her one evening as she took a break from digging. She had arrived the previous night after an almost five-hour taxi journey from Johannesburg and dug through the night.
“For people to be this happy, it’s rare,” she added. “Maybe if it’s Christmas.”
Just days after the rush began, officials visited the site and took samples for testing.
Government leaders asked people to stop digging and leave, citing concerns about the coronavirus, with South Africa reeling from a third wave of infections. They also said the informal digging was bad for the environment, destroying vital grazing land.
Despite the warnings, people kept coming.
Many snickered at the pleas of government officials, jaded by a history of corruption and colonialism that has seen foreign entities extract lucrative mineral resources from communities, with only a handful of elites in the country benefiting.
“The government can’t tell us anything,” said Lucky Khazi, 61, standing next to a hole where his friends dug. “These fat cats, these old crooks, what are they doing? Each and every day you’ll hear about millions stolen.” He added: “The government can’t tell us what to do in this, our ancestors’ land.”
Mr. Khazi lost his job of 26 years at a transportation company in December because of the pandemic. His job prospects are bleak, he said, because no one wants to hire someone his age.
A boy approached Mr. Khazi and his friend, Thiza Mhayise, with two stones to sell — one for 80 rand and the other for 100. Mr. Mhayise rolled the stones between his fingers and held them up in the fading sunlight.
“This is changing colors,” Mr. Mhayise said. “It doesn’t look like one.”
“It looks like a fake,” Mr. Khazi said.
Liau Masekotole, a shepherd, said he had first found clear stones in the field a year ago and quietly stashed them to take to his family in Lesotho. The only other person who knew was a fellow herdsman, he said.
Their secret leaked the first weekend in June when the other herdsman, Happy Mthabela, showed some of the stones to guests at a wedding. Within a week, amateur miners had flooded the field
Occupancy at the town’s only hotel, the James Ilenge Lodge, increased to about 80 percent from 30 percent — mostly with journalists, but also some diamond seekers, according to Excellent Madlala, the owner.
Mr. Madlala recalled being puzzled on a Thursday in early June when barely any of his employees showed up for work. The next day, his security guard apologized for skipping work, showed him a stone and told him that diamonds had been discovered nearby.
Mr. Madlala responded to his employee’s truancy as many bosses would: He got a shovel and went to dig. He came away with about 20 small stones.
Government officials threw a damper on the enterprise about a week after the rush began: Tests, they said, showed that the stones were quartz crystals, not diamonds.
The digging at KwaHlathi ended this past week after officials got those who remained to leave. But the prospectors aren’t giving up so easily — some are now digging in fields in nearby communities. And some still aren’t sold on the government’s announcement.
“I don’t believe the government,” Mr. Khazi said when reached by phone after the announcement. “They’re spreading fake news that this is not a diamond, because they don’t want people to go and dig the diamonds there.”
That sentiment did not surprise Ravi Pillay, an executive in the provincial government in charge of economic development.
“It’s not an unreasonable concern given how things have happened in the past,” he said.
A geological study is underway to determine the commercial value of the quartz, Mr. Pillay said, and officials would seek to make sure the community benefits if there are profits to be made.
Ms. Molefi, who had made the trip to KwaHlathi from Johannesburg, said she would consult gemologists on her own to find out whether the stones she unearthed were indeed diamonds.
She has not been able to work since March of last year after her job at the Johannesburg airport was cut because of the pandemic. She lives in a shack in an informal settlement south of the city and has had to put on hold her dream of building a house for her and her 7-year-old daughter.
Still, Ms. Molefi found the digging a worthwhile endeavor.
“If you don’t go and check,” she said, “you’ll only have your regrets.”
The need for social distancing led restaurants and grocery stores to seek technological help. That may improve productivity, but could also cost jobs.
By Ben Casselman, July 3, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/03/business/economy/automation-workers-robots-pandemic.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage§ion=Business
When Kroger customers in Cincinnati shop online these days, their groceries may be picked out not by a worker in their local supermarket but by a robot in a nearby warehouse.
Gamers at Dave & Buster’s in Dallas who want pretzel dogs can order and pay from their phones — no need to flag down a waiter.
And in the drive-through lane at Checkers near Atlanta, requests for Big Buford burgers and Mother Cruncher chicken sandwiches may be fielded not by a cashier in a headset, but by a voice-recognition algorithm.
An increase in automation, especially in service industries, may prove to be an economic legacy of the pandemic. Businesses from factories to fast-food outlets to hotels turned to technology last year to keep operations running amid social distancing requirements and contagion fears. Now the outbreak is ebbing in the United States, but the difficulty in hiring workers — at least at the wages that employers are used to paying — is providing new momentum for automation.
Technological investments that were made in response to the crisis may contribute to a post-pandemic productivity boom, allowing for higher wages and faster growth. But some economists say the latest wave of automation could eliminate jobs and erode bargaining power, particularly for the lowest-paid workers, in a lasting way.
“Once a job is automated, it’s pretty hard to turn back,” said Casey Warman, an economist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia who has studied automation in the pandemic.
The trend toward automation predates the pandemic, but it has accelerated at what is proving to be a critical moment. The rapid reopening of the economy has led to a surge in demand for waiters, hotel maids, retail sales clerks and other workers in service industries that had cut their staffs. At the same time, government benefits have allowed many people to be selective in the jobs they take. Together, those forces have given low-wage workers a rare moment of leverage, leading to higher pay, more generous benefits and other perks.
Automation threatens to tip the advantage back toward employers, potentially eroding those gains. A working paper published by the International Monetary Fund this year predicted that pandemic-induced automation would increase inequality in coming years, not just in the United States but around the world.
“Six months ago, all these workers were essential,” said Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, a union representing grocery workers. “Everyone was calling them heroes. Now, they’re trying to figure out how to get rid of them.”
Checkers, like many fast-food restaurants, experienced a jump in sales when the pandemic shut down most in-person dining. But finding workers to meet that demand proved difficult — so much so that Shana Gonzales, a Checkers franchisee in the Atlanta area, found herself back behind the cash register three decades after she started working part time at Taco Bell while in high school.
“We really felt like there has to be another solution,” she said.
So Ms. Gonzales contacted Valyant AI, a Colorado-based start-up that makes voice recognition systems for restaurants. In December, after weeks of setup and testing, Valyant’s technology began taking orders at one of Ms. Gonzales’s drive-through lanes. Now customers are greeted by an automated voice designed to understand their orders — including modifications and special requests — suggest add-ons like fries or a shake, and feed the information directly to the kitchen and the cashier.
The rollout has been successful enough that Ms. Gonzales is getting ready to expand the system to her three other restaurants.
“We’ll look back and say why didn’t we do this sooner,” she said.
The push toward automation goes far beyond the restaurant sector. Hotels, retailers, manufacturers and other businesses have all accelerated technological investments. In a survey of nearly 300 global companies by the World Economic Forum last year, 43 percent of businesses said they expected to reduce their work forces through new uses of technology.
Some economists see the increased investment as encouraging. For much of the past two decades, the U.S. economy has struggled with weak productivity growth, leaving workers and stockholders to compete over their share of the income — a game that workers tended to lose. Automation may harm specific workers, but if it makes the economy more productive, that could be good for workers as a whole, said Katy George, a senior partner at McKinsey, the consulting firm.
She cited the example of a client in manufacturing who had been pushing his company for years to embrace augmented-reality technology in its factories. The pandemic finally helped him win the battle: With air travel off limits, the technology was the only way to bring in an expert to help troubleshoot issues at a remote plant.
“For the first time, we’re seeing that these technologies are both increasing productivity, lowering cost, but they’re also increasing flexibility,” she said. “We’re starting to see real momentum building, which is great news for the world, frankly.”
Other economists are less sanguine. Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said that many of the technological investments had just replaced human labor without adding much to overall productivity.
In a recent working paper, Professor Acemoglu and a colleague concluded that “a significant portion of the rise in U.S. wage inequality over the last four decades has been driven by automation” — and he said that trend had almost certainly accelerated in the pandemic.
“If we automated less, we would not actually have generated that much less output but we would have had a very different trajectory for inequality,” Professor Acemoglu said.
Ms. Gonzales, the Checkers franchisee, isn’t looking to cut jobs. She said she would hire 30 people if she could find them. And she has raised hourly pay to about $10 for entry-level workers, from about $9 before the pandemic. Technology, she said, is easing pressure on workers and speeding up service when restaurants are chronically understaffed.
“Our approach is, this is an assistant for you,” she said. “This allows our employee to really focus” on customers.
Ms. Gonzales acknowledged she could fully staff her restaurants if she offered $14 to $15 an hour to attract workers. But doing so, she said, would force her to raise prices so much that she would lose sales — and automation allows her to take another course.
Rob Carpenter, Valyant’s chief executive, noted that at most restaurants, taking drive-through orders is only part of an employee’s responsibilities. Automating that task doesn’t eliminate a job; it makes the job more manageable.
“We’re not talking about automating an entire position,” he said. “It’s just one task within the restaurant, and it’s gnarly, one of the least desirable tasks.”
But technology doesn’t have to take over all aspects of a job to leave workers worse off. If automation allows a restaurant that used to require 10 employees a shift to operate with eight or nine, that will mean fewer jobs in the long run. And even in the short term, the technology could erode workers’ bargaining power.
“Often you displace enough of the tasks in an occupation and suddenly that occupation is no more,” Professor Acemoglu said. “It might kick me out of a job, or if I keep my job I’ll get lower wages.”
At some businesses, automation is already affecting the number and type of jobs available. Meltwich, a restaurant chain that started in Canada and is expanding into the United States, has embraced a range of technologies to cut back on labor costs. Its grills no longer require someone to flip burgers — they grill both sides at once, and need little more than the press of a button.
“You can pull a less-skilled worker in and have them adapt to our system much easier,” said Ryan Hillis, a Meltwich vice president. “It certainly widens the scope of who you can have behind that grill.”
With more advanced kitchen equipment, software that allows online orders to flow directly to the restaurant and other technological advances, Meltwich needs only two to three workers on a shift, rather than three or four, Mr. Hillis said.
Such changes, multiplied across thousands of businesses in dozens of industries, could significantly change workers’ prospects. Professor Warman, the Canadian economist, said technologies developed for one purpose tend to spread to similar tasks, which could make it hard for workers harmed by automation to shift to another occupation or industry.
“If a whole sector of labor is hit, then where do those workers go?” Professor Warman said. Women, and to a lesser degree people of color, are likely to be disproportionately affected, he added.
The grocery business has long been a source of steady, often unionized jobs for people without a college degree. But technology is changing the sector. Self-checkout lanes have reduced the number of cashiers; many stores have simple robots to patrol aisles for spills and check inventory; and warehouses have become increasingly automated. Kroger in April opened a 375,000-square-foot warehouse with more than 1,000 robots that bag groceries for delivery customers. The company is even experimenting with delivering groceries by drone.
Other companies in the industry are doing the same. Jennifer Brogan, a spokeswoman for Stop & Shop, a grocery chain based in New England, said that technology allowed the company to better serve customers — and that it was a competitive necessity.
“Competitors and other players in the retail space are developing technologies and partnerships to reduce their costs and offer improved service and value for customers,” she said. “Stop & Shop needs to do the same.”
In 2011, Patrice Thomas took a part-time job in the deli at a Stop & Shop in Norwich, Conn. A decade later, he manages the store’s prepared foods department, earning around $40,000 a year.
Mr. Thomas, 32, said that he wasn’t concerned about being replaced by a robot anytime soon, and that he welcomed technologies making him more productive — like more powerful ovens for rotisserie chickens and blast chillers that quickly cool items that must be stored cold.
But he worries about other technologies — like automated meat slicers — that seem to enable grocers to rely on less experienced, lower-paid workers and make it harder to build a career in the industry.
“The business model we seem to be following is we’re pushing toward automation and we’re not investing equally in the worker,” he said. “Today it’s, ‘We want to get these robots in here to replace you because we feel like you’re overpaid and we can get this kid in there and all he has to do is push this button.’”
The collapse of Champlain Towers South has prompted a review of hundreds of older high-rises. Some buildings ignored or delayed action on serious maintenance issues.
By Michael LaForgia, Adam Playford and Lazaro Gamio, July 4, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/04/us/south-florida-condo-maintenance-violations.html?action=click&module=Spotlight&pgtype=Homepage
The part of the Champlain Towers South condominium building that was still standing was demolished late Sunday in Surfside, Fla. Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
Out of the smoke and cinders of a city convulsed by race riots and an immigration crisis, the towers kept rising, each new development remaking Miami’s skyline in the early 1980s and marking an ambitious bet that the battered community would turn itself around.
Over the next 40 years, high-rises like Champlain Towers, in the sleepy, beachfront enclave of Surfside, stood witness to Miami’s remarkable rebound, luxurious, multistory symbols of endurance — of booms and busts but also the harsh South Florida elements: scorching sun and driving rains, battering winds and slashing saltwater.
Florida’s high-rise building regulations have long been among the strictest in the nation. But after parts of Champlain Towers South tumbled down on June 24, killing at least 24 people and leaving 121 unaccounted for, evidence has mounted that those rules have been enforced unevenly by local governments, and sometimes not at all.
Miami-Dade County officials said last week that they were prioritizing reviews of 24 multistory buildings that either had failed major structural or electrical inspections required after 40 years or had not submitted the reports in the first place. But the county’s own records show that 17 of those cases had been open for a year or more. Two cases were against properties owned by the county itself. The oldest case had sat unresolved since 2008.
In the tiny town of Bay Harbor Islands, two teardrops of land in Biscayne Bay that lie just north and west of Surfside, more than a dozen multistory structures or large commercial buildings that had been scheduled to turn in inspection reports had not submitted them as of last week, records show. One property appeared to be more than seven years late in filing.
The city of North Miami Beach had tried and failed for years to bring a 10-story condo building within its borders, Crestview Towers, into compliance with the 40-year recertification requirements. When the building’s condo association finally submitted the required paperwork last week, about nine years late, it documented critical safety concerns, a city spokesman said. Officials evacuated the building on Friday.
Meanwhile, the same local governments were pursuing a haphazard approach to identifying other potentially unsafe buildings across the region, with the age and height criteria that would prompt added scrutiny varying from one place to the next. At least one local government, the village of Key Biscayne, was opting to conduct no extra inspections at all, an official there said.
Even if building auditors focus only on towers of 10 stories or more that were built in the 1970s and 1980s, the task would still be daunting. An analysis of property records by The New York Times shows that at least 270 such buildings dot the skylines of Miami-Dade County’s cities, villages and towns, with dozens more in the county’s unincorporated reaches.
Investigators have yet to determine whether the Champlain Towers South collapse was caused by inherent structural problems, a lack of needed maintenance or some other, unknown factor. They were forced to pause work at the site last week amid concerns that the portions of the building that were still standing had become unstable and could collapse at any time. On Sunday, officials demolished the remainder of the building as a tropical storm bore down on Florida from the Caribbean.
The patchwork response to the Champlain Towers South collapse, and lack of answers about what caused the building to fall, were doing little to ease the minds of South Florida condo residents, some of whom had begun to eye their waterfront homes with sudden fear. Such concerns only intensified over the weekend after local officials evacuated a second building, this time a three-story structure in Miami Beach with 24 condo units, after the authorities found a failure in the flooring system and “excessive deflection on an exterior wall.”
“Every time there is a noise or a rumble, you start to think, How safe is this building?” Albert M. Barg, 77, said of his 23-story condo building in Sunny Isles Beach. The answer, he added, was “I don’t know.”
Dyann Piltser, 49, said she had put her Sunny Isles Beach condo up for sale. “I just don’t want to live in such a large building,” she said, “with so many elements beyond your control.”
Built Amid Turmoil
Miami is packed with multistory buildings that have spent decades exposed to sun, rain, winds and saltwater.
Some went up during Miami’s Art Deco heyday in the 1930s and 1940s. Others rose during an era of explosive growth in the 1950s and 1960s. Records show that more than 57 high-rises were built on barrier islands surrounding the city from 1970 to 1979.
The buildings of the early 1980s took shape against a backdrop of turmoil and economic uncertainty. In May 1980, rioters looted and burned large areas of the city, enraged at the acquittal of four police officers who had beaten an unarmed Black man to death during a traffic stop. Scores of Cubans and Haitians were coming ashore each day in a mass immigration event that would leave Miami’s public safety and social service agencies overwhelmed under the weight of some 150,000 new arrivals.
The combined effect was an exodus that pushed down property values in the city and surrounding communities, which had their own problems. South Beach was so awash in crime in 1980 that many were afraid even to walk its streets, said Merrett R. Stierheim, who was the county manager at the time. “I remember putting my feet on the floor and asking myself, ‘What in the hell is next?’” Mr. Stierheim recalled of those days. “It was a long struggle for Miami-Dade and all our cities to get a handle on this.”
In 1981, the year the Champlain Towers buildings were completed, Time magazine published a cover story titled, “Paradise Lost?” that singled out South Florida for its high rates of violent crime and drug smuggling.
The project’s developer, a Toronto lawyer and businessman named Nathan Reiber, who died in 2014, had run afoul of Canadian tax authorities before moving to Florida in the 1970s, and he eventually would plead guilty to a tax evasion charge in Canada, The Hamilton Spectator in Ontario reported. While the Champlain Towers were being built, other developers criticized city officials for accepting campaign contributions from the project in exchange for helping it along.
Grand jury inquiries through the 1980s and 1990s documented slipshod work by Miami-area building inspectors, though much of that scrutiny focused on inspections of single-family homes. Other criminal investigations have singled out government employees for taking gifts from developers, including, most recently, the top building official in Miami Beach.
Still, there was no evidence that high-rise buildings constructed during that era have been any more prone to problems than others, engineering experts and builders said.
Residents and visitors of older buildings across the Miami area in recent days have posted photos and videos of failing concrete and other problems on social media, but such defects are often superficial and not cause for alarm. “All concrete cracks — it’s made to crack,” said Allyn E. Kilsheimer, a structural engineer hired by Surfside to help investigate the Champlain Towers collapse. “The issue is to understand what the crack is, what might have caused it if anything, and then making sure it doesn’t cause more problems.”
Property data shows that more than 30 high-rises were built in coastal Miami areas from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, and records and interviews suggest that their states of repair vary widely from building to building.
Eleven of those towers were 12 stories or higher and built in the three years preceding the construction of Champlain Towers South. All are now past the age at which they should have submitted reports proving they had been scrutinized by an engineer for structural and electrical problems.
In one such report, an engineer noted last year that several concrete support columns had deteriorated in the parking garage of Winston Towers 700, a 23-story condo building in Sunny Isles Beach built in 1980. The problem most likely occurred as a result of pool chemicals leaking onto them from above, the engineer wrote, noting that while the columns appeared to have been properly shored up, they would have to be repaired before he would certify the building as safe. It was not clear whether the work was completed.
In another report, for the 19-story Bal Harbour 101 on Collins Avenue, less than two miles north of where the Champlain Towers stood, the engineering inspector documented a need for concrete repairs to the pool deck and waterproofing of the building’s north deck but concluded that the overall building structure was in good condition. Even so, he noted, concrete spalling and corrosion of reinforcement metal in the pool’s pump room would require significant structural repairs.
Recertification regulations required the building to complete an inspection report around 2018, when the building turned 40. But the process lagged, and records show that the village did not certify that the high-rise was in compliance until July 1 — a week after the Champlain Towers South collapse.
The condo building’s manager, Igor Bond, said Friday that he had been getting calls from concerned residents for a week. “They’re asking me about how safe the building is,” Mr. Bond said, “and we’re telling them, ‘Absolutely!’”
The condo association’s president did not respond to a request for comment.
Unlike the standards for single-family homes, which were blasted by critics after entire neighborhoods were wiped out by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the regulations for multistory structures have been among the toughest in the nation since the 1950s, builders and engineers said. One major reason: Many of the area’s first high-rises went up along the ocean, and officials wanted to be sure they could stand up to hurricane winds, flooding and rain.
“Permits and the codes were always tough in South Florida,” said Oscar Sklar, an architect and builder who helped complete Champlain Towers East in Surfside in 1994. “I don’t think it was any more lenient before than now.”
The regulations became even tougher in the 1970s, when the collapse of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration building led to the 40-year recertification requirements.
They were strengthened once more in the mid-1980s, after a condo complex in Cocoa Beach, which is about 60 miles east of Orlando, collapsed during construction, killing 11 workers. That change required developers to hire independent inspectors to monitor the structural integrity of multistory development projects as they progressed, but it was not in effect when Champlain Towers South was going up in 1981.
Even so, buildings across the region have racked up histories of violations, allowed to linger in some cases as a result of spotty compliance and enforcement.
Bay Harbor Islands, for one, has struggled to bring all of its buildings into compliance with the tough recertification rules. Fourteen structures were supposed to submit 40-year inspection reports in 2020.
Six of those never responded to notices, records show. The town sent certified letters to three property owners, but the letters were returned. Four other buildings submitted reports but were rejected because the buildings needed to do more work.
As of last week, town records listed only one building as having successfully completed the process.
“The small number of buildings that have yet to comply with the 40-year inspection have already received a notice of violation, and they are subject to fines if they do not timely comply with the certification process,” Maria Lasday, the town manager of Bay Harbor Islands, said in an email.
In North Miami Beach, where Crestview Towers was evacuated on Friday, the city said it had fined the building for noncompliance repeatedly, though it was not clear whether it had ever collected any money from the property.
It was only after the Champlain Towers collapse that Crestview turned in its 40-year recertification report, which had been completed in January. A lawyer for the condo board said the board had assumed the engineer conducting the inspection had shared findings with the city, but that was apparently not the case.
“The very first page of the report, once we got it, said, ‘This building is unsafe,’” said Willis Howard, the spokesman for North Miami Beach.
Holman J. Pérez, who had to leave his eighth-floor apartment on Friday night with his wife and two children, faulted the building’s management but also the city.
“Why did the city allow this?” he said, standing outside the building. “How can they have a report that was made in January and just not turn it in to anyone? Aren’t they the ones in charge of this?”
The New York Times combined multiple data sets from Miami-Dade County’s Open Data Hub for this analysis. Building footprint data was used to link structures to parcels. Each structure’s age was obtained from county property records. When a building’s construction year was not available, it was taken from Emporis, a website that provides building data for cities across the world.
The building footprint data was last updated in April 2019, and some buildings in the data may no longer exist. For some recent large developments, The Times manually added those buildings to the data. In cases where a parcel includes buildings built over multiple years, the oldest construction date was assigned to all buildings. In a few cases, buildings with adjoining walls were shown as a single structure in the data. For those, the construction year for the centermost property is reflected on the map.
Reporting was contributed by Joseph B. Treaster, Giulia Heyward, Michael Majchrowicz, Sophie Kasakove, Patricia Mazzei and Frances Robles.
By E. Tammy Kim, July 5, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/05/opinion/bezos-amazon-bessmer-labor.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage
Seattle in 2019. Credit...Chona Kasinger for The New York Times
SEATTLE — Prime Day, Amazon’s annual summer shopping bonanza, lasted not one but two days this June. The company advertised it incessantly on social media and especially to subscribers of Amazon Prime, a group that includes close to half of the U.S. population. In the many warehouses in and around the company’s hometown, thousands of workers showed up to their packing and sorting stations for a mandatory, extra-long shift.
Among them was Andy, who began working at his fulfillment center last year. He had never expected to sign on with Amazon, least of all as a blue-collar worker. His first job out of college was as a support engineer for a company in downtown Seattle. He had hoped to challenge himself in a programming role, but the work was rote, the office environment cold and dominated by “talk about market shares,” he said.
In the Trump years, Andy began to wonder why the city he lived in was so unequal and how the biggest, heaviest forces tended to squash everything small. He sought out the Tech Workers Coalition, a group of industry employees with a conscience, in search of answers.
One techie told him that she’d quit programming to work and organize in an Amazon warehouse. She was doing so with a group called Amazonians United, which believed that anyone who cared about poverty or workers’ rights, or curbing corporate power, should focus their energies on Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos, who steps down from his role as C.E.O. this week. Would Andy want to apply for a job and try to organize inside?
Andy applied through the online portal, submitted to a saliva-based drug test and got his photo taken for an ID. Within 48 hours, he was approved; a week and a half later, he was being trained as a “packer” on the vast, noisy floor of a fulfillment center. His goal was to do his job fast and well (currently, the expected packing rate is at least 200 scanned items per hour at his station) while getting to know his fellow workers. In time, perhaps, they could form an organizing committee and agitate for safer conditions and an increase in starting hourly wages from $15 or $17 to the $25 or $30 that unionized warehouse workers can earn.
Andy has had some success. While he and his co-workers do not have a legally-recognized union, hundreds of them signed petitions for a reinstatement of hazard pay and an increase in paid time off. On smoke breaks and after work, they talk about wrist pain, nasty managers and their reasons for staying in the job: to buy a house, provide for their families or pay for college. “I can’t really do anything else,” one told him.
Earlier this year, workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., once a thriving steel town, voted against unionizing with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The loss in Bessemer led some employees to feel powerless. “The result of that, for some of my co-workers was, ‘You can’t fight Amazon. It’s impossible,” an Amazonians United member in the New York area said.
The Bessemer defeat has led many major unions to grapple with the role of Amazon in the economy and their members’ lives. In June, members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which has organized the logistics industry since the early 20th century, voted to target Amazon’s operations. And a growing segment of the general population now recognizes the threat of “Amazon capitalism”: what scholars Jake Alimahomed-Wilson, Juliann Allison and Ellen Reese describe as reflecting “the larger global trend of the increasing influence of finance capitalism, neoliberal politics and policies, and corporate power.”
The challenge of organizing Amazon is “bigger than anything this country has ever faced,” Peter Olney, the former organizing director of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, told me. He compared Amazon’s close to one million U.S. employees to the several hundred thousand organized by the United Auto Workers at Ford, Chrysler and General Motors in the 1930s and 1940s.
Part of the strategy will have to be shop-by-shop organizing, but no one knows how best to unionize a 5,000-person warehouse with extreme turnover and “union avoidance” consultants. Or how to prevent Amazon from simply closing a unionized fulfillment center or transferring its workers to another, non-union facility.
What’s important now, Olney said, is that everyone in the labor movement recognizes the threat and pitches in.
In the coming years, Amazon will most likely become the largest private employer in the United States — perhaps even the world. It already employs nearly a million U.S. workers and indirectly commands many more thousands of contracted drivers. This isn’t uncommon knowledge, but few Americans have yet to confront the stakes of Amazon’s economic and political dominance — except, perhaps, in the company’s hometown.
Workers in the fulfillment and sorting centers dotting Interstate 5 have pushed for improved conditions, especially during the pandemic. This is true in other parts of the country as well, especially where Amazonians United is active, but the Seattle area is also the site of activism at headquarters, which employs more than 75,000 tech workers and other employees who possess significant bargaining power but are still vulnerable to retaliation and replacement.
In recent years, white-collar workers have condemned the company’s environmental policies, alleged maltreatment of warehouse workers and business relationship with law enforcement agencies. In 2019, an estimated 3,000 Seattle tech workers staged a walkout in solidarity with the Global Climate Strike. Last year, Amazon fired two outspoken designers — a move the National Labor Relations Board found to be unlawful. (Amazon has said it terminated these employees for “repeatedly violating internal policies.”)
Amazon’s home turf has also been the site of precedent-setting policy fights. In 2013, the national movement for a $15 minimum wage — now the company’s starting wage — won its first citywide victory in SeaTac, Wash. Last year, Seattle passed a payroll tax that is expected to raise $214 million per year, though after the repeal of a more stringent measure. And this year, Washington state passed a 7 percent capital-gains tax on some profits earned from selling stocks and other investments. (Washington, home to two of the wealthiest men in the world, has no income tax and relies instead on a regressive sales tax.)
These organizing efforts, while spotty and provisional, offer two lessons. First, that small-scale efforts can have an effect; second, that it’s important to pursue both regulatory and shop-floor campaigns.
Though Amazon is highly centralized, pay, hours and other conditions vary from warehouse to warehouse, and managers are known to respond to regional pressure. In 2019, activists angered by the lavish government incentives thrown at Amazon successfully campaigned against the construction of its secondary headquarters in New York City. And community and labor organizers in San Bernardino, Calif., an area choked by diesel truck emissions, continue to pressure local politicians to limit the expansion of warehouses and airports used by Amazon and other logistics companies.
The current alignment of late-pandemic, social-justice-oriented, early-Biden administration politics could help create the conditions for an empowered, well-organized work force capable of challenging Amazon. Democrats and some Republicans in Congress have backed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would make it easier to form a union, and several pieces of ambitious antitrust legislation. President Biden has installed Lina Khan, an Amazon skeptic, to lead the Federal Trade Commission. The Department of Labor has promised to investigate employers who retaliate against workers for raising safety concerns and is expected to scrutinize the misclassification of independent contractors.
The new Teamsters campaign, which promises to establish a department to specifically “aid Amazon workers and defend” industry standards, will include a mix of workplace organizing and local, state and federal advocacy. “I talked to thousands of Amazon workers in 2020. We haven’t filed for a union election, have we? There’s a reason for that,” Randy Korgan, the Teamsters’ national director for Amazon, told me. “We have to break Amazon down into fulfillment center, supply chain, their [contracted drivers] and delivery model.” (This fall, the Teamsters will hold an internal election, and both slates of candidates have promised to prioritize Amazon.) Staff from The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (whose affiliate, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, led the Bessemer campaign) are also supporting various Amazon-related efforts.
“The labor movement still has 14 million workers. It’s going to take a mass mobilization of union workers to engage Amazon workers,” Todd Crosby, UFCW’s organizing director, told me. “What if at least 5 percent, 700,000 people, were mobilized to go out and be organizers to contact people in their community?”
In May, Dan, a former programmer at Amazon, took me on a long walk through Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, also known as Amazonia. Those of us with history in the region all say the same thing about the area — still shocked to see its transformation from a low-rent, industrial scar to a manicured stretch of lakefront paths and high-rise buildings.
Dan grew up in a working-class, immigrant household in the South, and moved to Seattle to put his computer science degree to lucrative use. He worked at Amazon for several years, but never quite took to the culture of competition and merciless evaluation, or the oft-cited 14 Amazon leadership principles, which read like a party oath. During one round of what he described as “leveling,” in which each supervisor ranks his employees, he found himself marked down. He quit instead and joined a friendlier database start-up.
Like Andy, the coder-turned-warehouse worker, Dan is ambivalent about the role of tech in the region and the world. He explained that he arrived in a Seattle already fractured by widespread gentrification and displacement, and saw the city continue to split along class lines. His politics slowly veered left — he was roused by Black Lives Matter and furious about Amazon’s increased use of “gig economy” labor in logistics — but it felt nearly impossible to talk about any of this with his co-workers, let alone sign a petition or attend a protest. “I think a lot of tech workers have this aspirational, ‘I want to be Elon Musk’ kind of thing,” he said. Others feared getting fired or blacklisted in what can be an insular industry.
The week we spoke, 640 tech workers employed by Amazon signed a petition calling on the company to “commit to zero emissions by 2030” and prioritize stopping polluting in the Black and brown communities near its warehouses. It was the latest action by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice to address the downstream effects of the tech-retail behemoth. As Andrea Vidaurre of the People’s Collective for Environmental Justice told me, it seems as though nearly every working-age person in San Bernardino has “cycled through the Amazon warehouse complex.” Their families, meanwhile, have suffered high rates of asthma and cancer.
In more and more areas of the United States, Amazon structures the life of entire communities. The geographer and organizer Spencer Cox argues that Amazon’s warehouse zones are now “the major working-class space of suburban and exurban socialization. So even if you’re building a tenant union or a political party, this is a major social space. It has a broader importance.” Or, put more pointedly: “If you look at the consciousness of Amazon workers, it’s a guide to where the working class is as a whole,” Kshama Sawant, the socialist member of the Seattle City Council, said.
On the second Prime Day in June, I met Andy and one of his co-workers at the end of an 11-hour shift outside their gargantuan warehouse. Workers of every race, gender, age and body shape streamed out of the main entrance. The hourly associates wore athletic clothes or fluorescent yellow vests and carried their belongings in see-through bags the texture of a clear shower curtain. The managers were distinguished by dark-blue vests and the privacy of opaque backpacks. (Amazon said there was no special bag policy for managers.)
Over Chinese food, Andy’s friend later told me that she liked the work, but “there are things that should be improved.” She found the warehouse sweltering and the equipment dangerously worn out. The manager of their department was quick to penalize workers for packing or re-binning too slowly. They heard that another manager in the region had been flown out to Bessemer, just before the union vote, in an emergency effort to quell employee discontent.
The prospect of organizing workers in any significant number felt daunting to Andy’s friend, but, “If we want to make a change as a group, in a warehouse, Washington would be very ideal,” she said. “If headquarters was like, ‘Oh, god, if we can’t even keep our warehouse workers in control, how do you think we’ll look in front of the rest of the country?’ ”
“We can make a strong impact to show that it is possible. Just because headquarters is here, that doesn’t mean anything. That doesn’t take power away from us.”