“Justice denied is a body blow to our national psyche,” 84-year-old actor George Takei tweeted to his millions of followers. “On trial was not only a killer, but a system that continues to kill.”
Sign the Petition Today!
As a renewed wave of worker militancy and organizing is unfolding across the United States, alongside major developments in recent months in the fight to organize Amazon workers, the Support Amazon Workers network is reconstituting itself on a national basis to build and mobilize solidarity for these critical struggles.
On Monday, October 25, Amazon workers in Staten Island picked up the baton from Bessemer workers and filed for a union election there. The effort, organized by the independent Amazon Labor Union, is a critical new front in the long term battle to organize Amazon. Right now, solidarity from every corner of the workers and progressive movements is needed to support the Staten Island workers, who will undoubtedly come under a fierce anti-union attack from Amazon as the drive toward the election picks up.
We have initiated a national petition, both to show solidarity with these workers and to call on Amazon to recognize the union. Add your name and circulate the petition now.
The development in Staten Island is but one among many in the drive to organize Amazon. In recent months:
- A hearing officer from the National Labor Relations Board, in response to 23 charges filed by Bessemer workers and the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, recommended that the results of the election there earlier this year be set aside and a new election conducted. There has not yet been an official ruling on this recommendation from the NLRB, but one could come in the weeks or months ahead.
- The Teamsters overwhelmingly approved a resolution at their national convention in June to undertake a major campaign to organize Amazon. The language of the resolution indicates that, rather than going the route of a shop by shop NLRB election approach, the Teamsters intend to carry out a campaign that targets Amazon across the country with a wide array of tactics, including shop floor actions, recognition strikes, close coordination with community and solidarity activists, and more. They are wrapping up their national leadership election soon, and more could unfold on this front following that.
- Canadian Amazon workers at 9 locations across the country recently filed to hold elections for their union there. The Teamsters are organizing those 9 facilities.
- Amazon workers in Germany are currently conducting rolling strikes demanding higher wages and better working conditions
- Each and every day, Amazon workers across the country are organizing shop floor committees, engaging in boss fights, and building power on the job through a wide array of other initiatives and organizing efforts, including with Amazonians United and others.
At the same time, organized and unorganized workers in many sectors are also on the move, including Starbucks workers in the Buffalo area, rideshare and other gig workers, graduate students, school bus drivers, and many more.
In the upcoming weeks, the Support Amazon Workers network intends to build solidarity with these workers:
- We invite you to participate in a Strategy/Organizing Meeting to support Amazon (and Whole Foods) worker organizing and connecting this work to other workers struggles (reply to this email if you’re interested in joining)
- Supporting and helping to organize actions on November 26 (known as Black Friday) and November 29 (known as Cyber Monday)
- Forming local solidarity committees that can engage in a variety of activities to support Amazon and unorganized workers
- Mobilizing solidarity for Staten Island Amazon workers and other Amazon workers engaged in struggle on the shop floor
- Looking ahead to activities, national actions, and more in the new year.
All workers have a stake in the fight to organize Amazon, given its central role in the global capitalist economy and the logistics sector in particular, as well as for the way it is pioneering new methods of automating work and exploiting our labor.
With these developments unfolding, and many more likely to open up in the months ahead, re-constituting a national solidarity network that can engage in a variety of activities to support Amazon and all workers -- especially the unorganized -- fighting for power could not be more critical.
Organizing Amazon cannot and should not be left to the major unions and Amazon workers alone -- it will take a strong, united, and powerful mobilization of the entire working class to take on this giant. Join us in the fight.
To: U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives
End Legal Slavery in U.S. Prisons
Sign Petition at:
On the anniversary of the 26th of July Movement’s founding, Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research launches the online exhibition, Let Cuba Live. 80 artists from 19 countries – including notable cartoonists and designers from Cuba – submitted over 100 works in defense of the Cuban Revolution. Together, the exhibition is a visual call for the end to the decades-long US-imposed blockade, whose effects have only deepened during the pandemic. The intentional blocking of remittances and Cuba’s use of global financial institutions have prevented essential food and medicine from entering the country. Together, the images in this exhibition demand: #UnblockCuba #LetCubaLive
Please contact email@example.com if you are interested in organising a local exhibition of the exhibition.
Rashid just called with the news that he has been moved back to Virginia. His property is already there, and he will get to claim the most important items tomorrow. He is at a "medium security" level and is in general population. Basically, good news.
He asked me to convey his appreciation to everyone who wrote or called in his support during the time he was in Ohio.
His new address is:
Kevin Rashid Johnson #1007485
Nottoway Correctional Center
2892 Schutt Road
Burkeville, VA 23922
Freedom for Major Tillery! End his Life Imprisonment!
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:
Mumia Abu Jamal Appeal Denied!
We regret to share with you some alarming news on the continued case of Political Prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal
PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio)—The Pennsylvania Superior Court has challenged Mumia Abu-Jamal’s latest effort for an overturned conviction and new trial—nearly 40 years after he was convicted of killing Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner.
The high court said Abu-Jamal’s appeal was untimely, adding that the lower court shouldn’t have reinstated any part of his appeal because it lacked jurisdiction.
This fifth appeal attempt—filed in 2016—was based on a federal ruling involving former Philadelphia District Attorney Ron Castille, who later became a state Supreme Court justice and ruled on a death penalty appeal. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Castille had an “unconstitutional risk of bias” as the district attorney.
ABU-JAMAL’S ATTORNEYS ARGUED TO A PHILADELPHIA JUDGE IN 2018 THAT CASTILLE WAS ALSO THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY WHEN ABU-JAMAL WAS CONVICTED, AND A STATE SUPREME COURT JUDGE WHEN HE APPEALED.
And, they pointed to a letter Castille penned to the governor in 1990, urging the death penalty be used to send a “clear and dramatic message to all police killers that the death penalty in Pennsylvania actually means something.”
The Pennsylvania Superior Court concluded that “the 1990 letter cannot create a reasonable inference that Justice Castille had a personal interest in the outcome of the litigation,” court documents say. “There is no evidence that Castille had ever personally participated in the prosecution of Abu-Jamal.
“The 1990 letter is not evidence of prior prosecutorial participation. It is evidence that while acting as an advocate, District Attorney Castille took a policy position to advance completion of the appellate process for convicted murderers: ‘I very strongly urge you immediately to issue death warrants in each and every one of these cases. Only such action by you will cause these cases to move forward in a legally appropriate manner.’ He was not arguing that the law should be changed or should be ignored. Rather, he simply took a position to facilitate collateral review of death sentences which was subscribed to by many prosecutors at the time.” But, the state Superior Court noted, Castille didn’t list Abu-Jamal, and they say Abu-Jamal didn’t file a new petition, using the letter as an argument, in time.
“Further,” the decision reads, “the 1990 letter was dated June 15th. At that time, Abu-Jamal’s direct appeal was still pending before the Supreme Court of the United States. … As such, Abu-Jamal was not even in the class of litigants that District Attorney Castille was referencing in the letter. The 1990 letter therefore cannot create a reasonable inference that Justice Castille was personally biased against Abu-Jamal.”
Pa. Supreme Court denies widow’s appeal to remove Philly DA from Abu-Jamal case
Abu Jamal was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder of Faulkner in 1982. Over the past four decades, five of his appeals have been quashed.
In 1989, the state’s highest court affirmed Abu-Jamal’s death penalty conviction, and in 2012, he was re-sentenced to life in prison.
Abu-Jamal, 66, remains in prison. He can appeal to the state Supreme Court, or he can file a new appeal.
KYW Newsradio reached out to Abu-Jamal’s attorneys for comment. They shared this statement in full:
“Today, the Superior Court concluded that it lacked jurisdiction to consider issues raised by Mr. Abu-Jamal in prior appeals. Two years ago, the Court of Common Pleas ordered reconsideration of these appeals finding evidence of an appearance of judicial bias when the appeals were first decided. We are disappointed in the Superior Court’s decision and are considering our next steps.
“While this case was pending in the Superior Court, the Commonwealth revealed, for the first time, previously undisclosed evidence related to Mr. Abu-Jamal’s case. That evidence includes a letter indicating that the Commonwealth promised its principal witness against Mr. Abu-Jamal money in connection with his testimony. In today’s decision, the Superior Court made clear that it was not adjudicating the issues raised by this new evidence. This new evidence is critical to any fair determination of the issues raised in this case, and we look forward to presenting it in court.”
Questions and comments may be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sign our petition urging President Biden to grant clemency to Leonard Peltier.
Address: 116 W. Osborne Ave. Tampa, Florida 33603
Resources for Resisting Federal Repression
Since June of 2020, activists have been subjected to an increasingly aggressive crackdown on protests by federal law enforcement. The federal response to the movement for Black Lives has included federal criminal charges for activists, door knocks by federal law enforcement agents, and increased use of federal troops to violently police protests.
The NLG National Office is releasing this resource page for activists who are resisting federal repression. It includes a link to our emergency hotline numbers, as well as our library of Know-Your-Rights materials, our recent federal repression webinar, and a list of some of our recommended resources for activists. We will continue to update this page.
Please visit the NLG Mass Defense Program page for general protest-related legal support hotlines run by NLG chapters.
If you are contacted by federal law enforcement you should exercise all of your rights. It is always advisable to speak to an attorney before responding to federal authorities.
State and Local Hotlines
If you have been contacted by the FBI or other federal law enforcement, in one of the following areas, you may be able to get help or information from one of these local NLG hotlines for:
- Portland, Oregon: (833) 680-1312
- San Francisco, California: (415) 285-1041 or 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:
Center for Constitutional Rights
Civil Liberties Defense Center
- Grand Juries: Slideshow
Grand Jury Resistance Project
Movement for Black Lives Legal Resources
Tilted Scales Collective
I Asked Fellow Ex-Israeli Soldiers to Tell Me Their Stories
By Rona Segal
Director Rona Segal learned filmmaking in the Israeli army.
Now, she turns the camera on her fellow soldiers.
Ms. Segal is a documentary filmmaker.
I joined the army when I was 18 years old. Military service is mandatory in Israel (with few exemptions) and we’re instructed to never doubt its necessity. But I wanted to make films, so I maneuvered my way into the Israel Defense Forces’ film unit.
The army is where I learned the craft of filmmaking, and making the short documentary above allowed me to go back to those years. But now, as an independent filmmaker, I have a different perspective, a perspective that most 18-year-olds simply don’t have.
Here, ex-soldiers share their accounts of day-to-day operations on the ground in Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank. They offer a view that has rarely been seen by the public.
Here are a few screenshots from the video—and these are not the most violent altercations shown:
Stop and Frisk:
And it gets worse! Tearing up homes for no reason. Shooting Palestinians for no reason. Cheering when they shoot a young man in his testicles with rubber bullets. Rewarding soldiers who hit their targets. IDF brutality is unmatched!
After two teenage boys exchanged gunfire outside a football game in a Philadelphia suburb, the police opened fire and killed an 8-year-old girl. Now the teenagers are charged with a crime.
By Tim Arango, Nov. 16, 2021
Fanta Bility was killed in August by police officers who fired toward a car they mistakenly believed was the source of gunshots. Credit...via Bruce L. Castor Jr.
It began, prosecutors say, when two teenage boys, carrying a grudge between them and the guns to settle it, exchanged gunfire outside a high school football stadium just as a game was winding down in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
It ended with the death of an 8-year-old girl named Fanta Bility — killed not by the two boys, but by a barrage of bullets unleashed by three police officers on the scene, who began firing toward a car they mistakenly believed was the source of the gunshots.
Now, more than two months after the fatal police shooting that shook the small town of Sharon Hill, criminal charges have been brought in the case — but not against the three officers. The two teenage boys have been charged with first-degree murder for setting in motion the events that led to the death of the girl, a daughter of West African immigrants who was attending the game to watch her sister, a cheerleader, and her cousin, one of the football players.
The decision by prosecutors to charge the two teenagers, even though they did not fire the shot that killed the girl, while allowing the police officers involved to keep their jobs, has stirred outrage in the community and angered her family who worry that the police will ultimately evade accountability.
The charges rely on a legal theory known as “transferred intent,” which prosecutors believe applies in this case because they say the two teenagers had intended to kill each other, and the result of their actions was Fanta’s death. But experts say prosecutors are stretching the definition of “transferred intent” and could have difficulty making the charges stand up in court.
Prosecutors say that the police role in Fanta’s death is still under investigation and that a grand jury will begin reviewing the case on Nov. 18 “so that it may be determined whether the police officers’ use of deadly force was justified,” District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer of Delaware County said in a statement.
“I ask for the community’s continued patience as the grand jury undertakes its investigation,” he said.
Philip M. Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University who studies police violence, said, “It sounds like a lot of smoke and mirrors to deflect from police accountability.” He added, “It makes no sense to shoot into a moving vehicle.”
Bruce L. Castor Jr., the lawyer for the Bility family, who has filed a lawsuit on its behalf against the city of Sharon Hill and its police department, said the girl’s parents were angered to see the charges against the teenagers. He said the family believed that the charges were a smoke screen designed to shield the police from legal consequences for killing Fanta. (The family, through Mr. Castor, declined to comment.)
Mr. Castor, a former acting attorney general of Pennsylvania who was one of former President Donald J. Trump’s defense lawyers during his second impeachment trial, said he believed that a conviction of the two teenagers would be difficult at trial.
“I’m surprised that the district attorney was that aggressive but I certainly wish him well,” Mr. Castor said. “I don’t immediately see how the doctrine of transferred intent applies under these circumstances.”
The shootings began on the evening of Aug. 27 just as the last minutes were ticking off the clock of the season-opening football game at Academy Park High School. Spectators were already streaming for the exits. On the radio, the announcer was giving the final score — a 42-0 win for the home team — when bursts of gunfire could be heard. On the field, players hit the ground seeking safety.
Prosecutors say a dispute had erupted during the game between the two boys — one 16, the other 18 — and their group of friends. They say one of them flashed a gun nestled in his waistband as he left the game and later pulled it out and began shooting toward the other group of teenagers. The other boy, having run to his car to retrieve a 9-millimeter Taurus pistol, returned fire and wounded a bystander, a witness told investigators.
A group of police officers, about 140 feet away, fired 25 shots in return, killing Fanta and wounding three other people, including an older sister.
The gunfight between the two teenagers, Mr. Stollsteimer said in the statement, “precipitated the responsive discharge of weapons by police officers stationed near the entrance to the football stadium.”
The case, experts say, reflects one of the less-discussed ways that the law can shield the police from accountability — when officers kill someone but murder charges are brought against others who were on the scene and may have participated in separate criminal acts that instigated the police response.
“The main issue here is that the police were negligent and breached their duty by showing up and shooting into a crowd,” said Dan Kozieja, of Delco Resists, a local social justice organization formed last year in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd. “Now they are trying to take the easy route out by pinning this murder on two young boys rather than taking accountability for their actions.”
BuzzFeed News, in an investigation published in August, reported on several similar cases around the country. Often in these cases, prosecutors invoked the so-called felony murder rule, which in some states allows for murder charges against someone who committed a felony that resulted in death, even if the person had no intent of killing someone.
In one case, in 2019 in Phoenix, police officers pulled over a car because they suspected the four occupants of committing a robbery. When one of them fled, the police shot him dead. The three others were charged with murder, while the police were not held accountable.
As the legal process plays out, State Senator Anthony H. Williams, whose district includes Sharon Hill, has asked for calm.
Mr. Williams said he felt “blindsided” and “betrayed” when the charges were announced, since he said he had been in discussions about the case with the district attorney’s office.
“They were not the individuals who shot the little girl,” he said. “How in God’s name you can go from not charging individuals who were involved to charging individuals who were not involved is an exclamation point for the system to be changed. Not reformed, but to be dramatically changed. It’s mind-boggling.”
An examination of Brazil’s immense tannery industry shows how hides from illegally deforested ranches can easily reach the global marketplace. In the United States, much of the demand for Brazilian leather comes from automakers.
By Manuela Andreoni, Hiroko Tabuchi and Albert SunPhotographs by Victor Moriyama, Nov. 17, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/17/climate/leather-seats-cars-rainforest.html
This article was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network.
BURITIS, Brazil — One morning this summer, Odilon Caetano Felipe, a rancher who raises cattle on illegally deforested land in the Amazon, met with a trader and signed over 72 newly fattened animals. With that stroke of the pen, Mr. Felipe gave his cattle a clean record: By selling them, he obscured their role in the destruction of the world’s largest rainforest.
Over lunch shortly after the July 14 sale, Mr. Felipe spoke openly about the business that has made him wealthy. He acknowledged cutting down the thick Amazon forest and that he had not paid for the land. He also said he structured his sales to hide the true origins of his cattle by selling to a middleman, creating a paper trail falsely showing his animals as coming from a legal ranch. Other ranchers in the area do the same, he said.
“It makes no difference,” he said, whether his farm is legal or not.
A New York Times investigation into Brazil’s rapidly expanding slaughterhouse industry — a business that sells not only beef to the world, but tons of leather annually to major companies in the United States and elsewhere — has identified loopholes in its monitoring systems that allow hides from cattle kept on illegally deforested Amazon land to flow undetected through Brazil’s tanneries and on to buyers worldwide.
Mr. Felipe’s ranch is one of more than 600 that operate in an area of the Amazon known as Jaci-Paraná, a specially protected environmental reserve where deforestation is restricted. And transactions like his are the linchpins of a complex global trade that links Amazon deforestation to a growing appetite in the United States for luxurious leather seats in pickup trucks, SUVs and other vehicles sold by some of the world’s largest automakers, among them General Motors, Ford and Volkswagen.
A luxury vehicle can require a dozen or more hides, and suppliers in the United States increasingly buy their leather from Brazil. While the Amazon region is one of the world’s major providers of beef, increasingly to Asian nations, the global appetite for affordable leather also means that the hides of these millions of cattle supply a lucrative international leather market valued in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually.
This leather trade shows how the wealthy world’s shopping habits are tied to environmental degradation in developing nations, in this case by helping to fund destruction of the Amazon despite its valuable biodiversity and the scientific consensus that protecting it would help to slow climate change.
To track the global trade in leather from illegal ranches in the Brazilian rainforest to the seats in American vehicles, The Times interviewed ranchers, traders, prosecutors and regulators in Brazil, and visited tanneries, ranches and other facilities. The Times spoke to participants at all levels of the illicit trade in the Jaci-Paraná Extractive Reserve, an area in Rondônia State that has been granted special protections because it is home to communities of people who, for generations, have lived off the land by tapping rubber trees.
These communities are now being forced out by ranchers who want the land for cattle. Over the past decade, ranchers have significantly expanded their presence in the reserve, and today some 56 percent of it has been cleared, according to data compiled by the state environmental agency.
The reporting is also based on analysis of corporate and international trade data in several countries and thousands of cattle-transport certificates issued by the Brazilian government. The certificates were obtained by the Environmental Investigation Agency, an advocacy group in Washington. The Times independently verified the certificates and separately obtained thousands of additional ones.
This enabled the tracking of leather from illegal farms in the Amazon to slaughterhouses operated by Brazil’s three biggest meatpackers, JBS, Marfrig and Minerva, and then to the tanneries they supply. JBS describes itself as the world’s largest leather processor.
According to Aidee Maria Moser, a retired prosecutor in Rondônia State who spent almost two decades fighting illegal ranching in the Jaci-Paraná reserve, the practice of selling animals reared in the reserve to middleman traders suggests an intent to conceal their origin. “It’s a way to give a veneer of legality to the cattle,” she said, “so slaughterhouses can deny there was anything illegal.”
The problem isn’t limited to Rondônia. Last month, an audit led by prosecutors in the neighboring state of Pará, home to the second-largest cattle herd in the Amazon, found that JBS had bought 301,000 animals, amounting to 32 percent of its purchases in the state, between January 2018 and June 2019 from farms that violated commitments to prevent illegal deforestation.
JBS disagreed with the criteria used by the prosecutors and agreed to improve its monitoring system, block suppliers flagged by the research and donate $900,000 to the state in response to the audit.
To get a sense of scale of the ranches operating in vulnerable areas across the Brazilian Amazon, The Times overlaid government maps of protected Amazon land, deforested areas and farm boundaries with the locations of ranches that JBS publicly listed as supplying its slaughterhouses in 2020. An analysis showed that, among the JBS suppliers, ranches covering an estimated 2,500 square miles significantly overlapped Indigenous land, a conservation zone or an area that was deforested after 2008, when laws regulating deforestation were put in place in Brazil.
The methodology and results were examined and verified by a team of independent researchers and academics who study land use in the Brazilian Amazon.
International trade data showed companies that own tanneries supplied with the hides had then shipped leather to factories in Mexico run by Lear, a major seat maker that supplies auto assembly plants across the United States. Lear said in 2018 that it was then sourcing about 70 percent of its raw hides from Brazil. Brazil’s hides also go to other countries including Italy, Vietnam and China for use in the automotive, fashion and furniture industries, the trade data showed.
JBS acknowledged that almost three-quarters of the ranches identified in The Times’s analysis did overlap with land that the government categorizes as illegally deforested, or as Indigenous land or a conservation zone. But it said all the ranches had been in compliance with rules to prevent deforestation when JBS bought from them.
JBS said that, in those instances where there were overlaps, the farms were allowed to operate in protected or deforested areas, or their boundaries had changed, or they had followed rules to fix their environmental violations. Ranching is allowed in some protected areas in Brazil if it follows sustainable practices.
In a statement, JBS said it has maintained a monitoring system for more than a decade that verifies supplier compliance with its environmental policy. “More than 14,000 suppliers have been blocked for failure to comply with this policy,” it said. However, the company said, “the great challenge for JBS, and for the beef cattle supply chain in general, is to monitor the suppliers of its suppliers, since the company has no information about them.”
Amazon deforestation has surged in recent years as ranchers race to supply growing demand for beef, particularly in China. Leather industry representatives make the point that as long as there is demand for beef, they are simply using hides that would otherwise be sent to landfills.
Raoni Rajão, who studies Amazon supply chains at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, said that because the leather industry makes ranching more profitable, it shares responsibility for any deforestation. “Leather can have high added value,” he said.
Forest loss is destroying the Amazon’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide, which trees pull out of the air. Carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels is the main driver of climate change. Brazil was one of more than 100 nations to pledge to end deforestation by 2030 at the recent United Nations climate summit in Glasgow.
While most ranches in the Amazon region aren’t linked to illegal deforestation, the findings show how illegal leather is entering the global supply chain, circumventing a system that slaughterhouses and leather companies themselves created in recent years to try to show that their cattle come only from legitimate ranches.
In response to detailed questions, JBS, Marfrig and Minerva said they weren’t aware that cattle from the Jaci-Paraná reserve were entering their supply chains.
All three said they had systems to monitor farms that supply their slaughterhouses directly, and that they exclude farms that don’t comply with environmental laws. But all three acknowledged that they can’t trace indirect suppliers, such as Mr. Felipe, who sell cattle through middlemen, masking their origins.
Lear said it used “a robust sourcing process” that ensured it worked “with the most capable and advanced suppliers that are committed to purchasing hides from cattle reared on compliant farms.” The company said that if suppliers violated its policies, it would take steps that could include canceling their contracts “and/or legal action against the supplier.”
G.M. said it expected suppliers to “comply with laws, regulations, and act in a way consistent with the principles and values” of the automaker. Ford said it aspired “to source only raw materials that are responsibly produced.” Volkswagen said its suppliers already adhered to a high level of sustainability.
In Jaci-Paraná, the global demand for leather is helping to sustain a growing herd of 120,000 cattle where forest once stood. “If all the cattle were sold,” said Ms. Moser, the former prosecutor, the government would have enough money “to reforest the whole reserve.”
‘I came here to kill you’
It was pouring rain last December when two men docked at Lourenço Durães’ home by the Jaci-Paraná River. Mr. Durães, a 71-year-old rubber tapper, invited the men in and offered them coffee. Then, after discussing the weather for a few minutes, one of the visitors got right to the point
“I won’t fool you,” he said, according to Mr. Durães and one of his friends, who together described the meeting recently. “I came here to kill you.”
They wanted to get rid of Mr. Durães because his land is valuable to ranchers.
Jaci-Paraná was created in 1996 to grant a community of rubber-tree tappers the right to pursue their livelihood. Mr. Durães is among the last of the tappers. The community is being pushed out by deforestation.
“We are frightened, but I hope for justice,” Mr. Durães said, adding that he believed he was spared that day because he is an old man.
According to Mr. Durães and a police report filed by his friend, the would-be hit man identified the person who had sent him, but only by a nickname. The police didn’t investigate, according to the police report, because Mr. Durães and his friend couldn’t provide a full name of a person to press charges against.
In an interview, Lucilene Pedrosa, who directs the regional police division, said her team was waiting for the men to provide more information so it could investigate.
Government data analyzed by The Times shows the appetite for land in the area. According to the numbers, between January 2018 and June 2021 ranches operating in Jaci-Paraná on illegally deforested land sold at least 17,700 cattle to intermediate ranches. The buyers were suppliers to the three big meatpackers, JBS, Marfrig and Minerva, according to both government and corporate data.
Almost half of those 17,700 cattle were bought by Armando Castanheira Filho, a local trader who has been one of the largest buyers in Jaci-Paraná and a direct supplier to all three major meatpackers. The sales to him created a paper trail that concealed that the cattle originated on illegal ranches.
A Times reporter witnessed such a transaction when Mr. Felipe, the rancher who acknowledged engaging in deforestation, sold his 72 cattle this year. The buyer that day was Mr. Castanheira.
The Times then tracked the animals. Eleven hours later, they ended up at a Marfrig slaughterhouse.
Marfrig runs a website listing where its cattle come from in an effort to show that it sources cattle responsibly. For the July 14 shipment tracked by The Times, Mr. Felipe’s ranch isn’t listed on the site. But the list of farms that supplied cattle for the next day’s slaughter does include Mr. Castanheira’s farm, which is located outside the reserve.
At the end of that day at the Marfrig slaughterhouse, a truck marked with the name of a tannery, Bluamerica, left the slaughterhouse carrying hides. Bluamerica is a tannery that supplies Lear, the automobile seat maker.
Mr. Castanheira confirmed that some of the cattle he buys from the reserve go directly to slaughter, spending no time at his ranch, although the paperwork shows they went through his own farm first. He denied doing it to hide the cattle’s origin.
“I don’t do this to ‘launder’ anything,” he wrote in a text message. He said his intent was simply to profit from the difference between what he pays for each animal and what he can get at the slaughterhouse.
Marfrig, Minerva and JBS said they did not dispatch trucks to pick up cattle at the Jaci-Paraná reserve, or any location other than their direct suppliers. Lawyers for Marfrig have also filed a report with the police that lists the events described by The Times, calling them “potential offenses of criminal nature.”
Mr. Castanheira now maintains that the Times reporter witnessed the only instance of this kind of transaction by him. All three meatpacking companies said they have now excluded Mr. Castanheira from their supplier pool.
Two of Bluamerica’s owners, companies named Viposa and Vancouros, said their suppliers were subject to regular audits and acknowledged the challenges of tracing indirect suppliers. Both companies said they were working with the World Wide Fund for Nature, an environmental group based in Switzerland, to improve their systems.
Overall, an analysis of government data on cattle movement in Jaci-Paraná and nearby areas between 2018 and 2021 identified 124 transactions that show signs of cattle laundering, experts say. The transactions show at least 5,600 cattle were transferred from farms in the reserve to middlemen who, on the same day, sold cattle to the three major slaughterhouses.
Holly Gibbs, a University of Wisconsin-Madison geographer who has been researching agribusiness in the Amazon for a decade, said that though legitimate middlemen often buy and sell cattle on the same day, the fact that the transactions aren’t closely tracked “is a huge loophole.”
“They’re bringing animals that were raised on a protected area into national and international supply chains,” she said.
The supply chain, from the ranch to the auto showroom, is complex. Hides from Minerva and JBS slaughterhouses go to JBS-owned tanneries, while Marfrig’s hides are mainly processed by Vancouros and Viposa, according to corporate data and interviews. Trade data compiled by Panjiva, the supply-chain research unit at S&P Global Market Intelligence, shows that the seat manufacturer Lear, which is based in Southfield, Mich., is the largest American buyer of hides from JBS, Vancouros and Viposa.
This past May, illegal ranchers in Jaci-Paraná won a major victory. Rondônia’s governor signed into law a measure that shrank the size of the reserve by 90 percent.
The law, which prosecutors are fighting in court, opens a path for ranchers on illegally deforested land to legalize their businesses. Critics of the law said it could set a precedent for further deforestation in other protected reserves.
No matter the outcome of that legal fight, Mr. Durães, the rubber tapper, said he did not intend to leave his sliver of forest. The cattle pasture is now barely a mile away from his two-room wooden home.
Living among the mighty trees is the only existence he knows. And staying, he said, is “the only way to keep the forest standing.”
‘Transparency’ with a loophole
Every few seconds at the Vancouros tannery in southern Brazil, the sound of leather hides tumbling in dozens of 11-foot wooden drums is interrupted by the clicks of a pneumatic marker as each individual hide is pierced with a seven-digit code that traces its origin.
Clébio Marques, the tannery’s commercial director, plucked a damp blue hide from a pile, pulled out his phone and typed its code into a website that his company created for its clients, such as Lear. Up popped the details of the supplier of that specific hide.
“All of our leather is traceable,” he said. “This is not required, no one asked for it, but we felt the market needed more transparency.”
But then Mr. Marques was presented with the finding that one of his most important suppliers, Marfrig, was buying cattle from suppliers whose transactions showed signs of cattle laundering. “I’m surprised,” he said. “We expect the main product to be legal.”
He stressed, though, that his own company’s monitoring wasn’t at fault. “We have to trust the documents that are provided to us, because our audit is based on their system,” Mr. Marques said.
All three major meatpackers have systems designed to track the last farm where the cattle they slaughter came from. However, all three have the same flaw: They don’t account for the fact that cattle don’t typically spend their whole lives on a single farm. Therefore, they don’t consider that a direct supplier might be selling cattle that were actually raised by someone else, on illegally deforested land.
The tracking systems were created after a 2009 Greenpeace report that linked Brazilian beef and leather suppliers to illegal deforestation. Today, the three major firms state that they have zero-tolerance deforestation policies for all direct suppliers.
All three major slaughterhouses publicly post their tracking data online. JBS’s is the most detailed; the other companies omit ranches’ precise locations. It was the Times analysis of this JBS data for 2020, the most recent year available, that indicated the company’s suppliers included ranches that may have violated government rules designed to prevent deforestation and displacement of Indigenous people.
JBS said all of its suppliers were in compliance at the time of purchasing. Marfrig and Minerva said that they shared as much information about their direct suppliers as permissible under Brazil’s data privacy law.
As part of this process, tanneries rely on an industry-funded organization, the Leather Working Group, to certify their compliance. The group has assigned its top rating, “gold,” to all the Amazon-based tanneries that supply Lear with leather, signifying that they adhere to environmentally sustainable practices.
In a statement, the group said it was working to improve its traceability protocols but that “due the complexity of the farming systems in Brazil and lack of publicly available databases, there is still, unfortunately, no easy solution for this situation.”
JBS, Marfrig and Minerva all have publicly pledged to improve the tracking of ranches that sell cattle to its direct suppliers. JBS has said it will trace one layer of indirect suppliers by 2025. Marfrig vowed to trace all its indirect suppliers in the Amazon by 2025 and Minerva said it would have fully traceable supply chains in South America by 2030.
“Only a birth-to-slaughter traceability for individual animals is going to be enough to ensure that there is no deforestation in these high-risk supply chains in the Amazon,” said Rick Jacobsen of the Environmental Investigation Agency, the nonprofit group.
From Brazil to America’s car lots
The leather seats in Cadillac’s Escalade SUV, described by a dealer in Washington State as “a luxury hotel on wheels,” can push the price for General Motors’ top-of-the-line model to more than $100,000.
The Escalade is one of the many vehicles sold in the United States that uses leather seats and other trimmings from Lear, a company that commands about a fifth of the world’s market in car seats.
Neither Lear nor G.M. labels where the leather for its car seats comes from. Lear’s imports of Brazilian leather have surged over the past decade, driven by a jump in leather sourced from JBS, according to data from Panjiva, the supply-chain data company. Last year, Lear was the largest American importer of leather and hides from Brazil, importing about 6,000 tons, the bulk of that from JBS, according to Panjiva data.
Full-size trucks and large SUVs are a growing force behind the demand for leather trimmings in the auto industry. To many buyers, leather “screams luxury and usually adds significant resale value,” said Drew Winter, a senior analyst at Wards Intelligence, an automotive research firm.
Raymond E. Scott, Lear’s chief executive, laid out the importance of luxury vehicles at an investor presentation in June. The company has 45 percent of the luxury market, he said. And what was propelling the growth in Lear’s seating business was “really the strength of G.M.’s full-size trucks and SUVs,” a lineup that also includes the Yukon, Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban.
In Brazil, “100 percent of our suppliers use geo-fencing” (a technology that uses GPS to establish a virtual fence) “to ensure they don’t buy animals from farms involved with deforestation,” Lear said in a 2018 statement.
However, The Times’s findings in Brazil indicate that Lear’s suppliers didn’t have the ability to track all cattle in this way.
Lear said it required all suppliers to comply with a no-deforestation policy, which bans the use of any materials sourced from illegally deforested areas or from Indigenous or other protected lands. According to corporate filings, Lear’s other biggest customers are Ford, Daimler, Volkswagen and Stellantis, formed from the merger of Fiat Chrysler and the French maker of Peugeot and Citroën cars.
General Motors said its supply chain was “built on strong, transparent and trusted relationships.” Ford said it held itself and its suppliers to ambitious standards and “did well in many areas and can improve in others.” Volkswagen said it was working on better tracking the supply chain back to the farm.
Daimler said that a small percentage of its leather came from Brazil. Stellantis said it shared concerns over traceability, and was actively working to confirm locations of tanneries and farms in its supply chain.
Last year, about one-third of the 15,000 tons of leather imported to the United States came from Brazil, which recently overtook Italy to become the biggest exporter of leather and hides to America. Much of that increase can be attributed to the auto industry.
The bulk of JBS’s leather shipments to Lear in the United States travels from São Paulo to Houston, according to trade data from Panjiva. From there, much of it is trucked across the Mexican border to one of two dozen car-seat factories operated by Lear in Mexico, where workers cut the hides and stitch them into seat covers.
The leather is then trucked back over the border. From January 2019 through June 2021, Lear’s plants in Mexico shipped at least 1,800 tons of leather to the United States, according to trucking data tallied by Material Research.
Its final destination: Lear facilities nationwide. They tend to be located closer to the final automobile-assembly plants, making it easier for the company to match color and other variations to the models coming down the vehicle assembly lines.
One such destination is General Motors’ plant in Arlington, Texas, a sprawling campus on 250 acres where the automaker produces some of the company’s largest and most luxurious trucks, including the Escalade. Autoworkers assemble about 1,300 SUVs a day for sale in the United States as well as for export.
A 10-minute drive away, Lear has a factory that makes leather seats.
The 1966 convictions of the two men are expected to be thrown out after a lengthy investigation, validating long-held doubts about who killed the civil rights leader.
By Ashley Southall and Jonah E. Bromwich, Nov. 17, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/17/nyregion/malcolm-x-killing-exonerated.html
The killing of Malcolm X was one of the most notorious murders of the civil rights era. There were long-held doubts about who was actually responsible. Credit...Marty Lederhandler/Associated Press
Two of the men found guilty of the assassination of Malcolm X are expected to have their convictions thrown out on Thursday, the Manhattan district attorney and lawyers for the two men said, rewriting the official history of one of the most notorious murders of the civil rights era.
The exoneration of the two men, Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam, represents a remarkable acknowledgment of grave errors made in a case of towering importance: the 1965 murder of one of America’s most influential Black leaders in the fight against racism.
A 22-month investigation conducted jointly by the Manhattan district attorney’s office and lawyers for the two men found that prosecutors and two of the nation’s premier law enforcement agencies — the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the New York Police Department — had withheld key evidence that, had it been turned over, would likely have led to the men’s acquittal.
The two men, known at the time of the killing as Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, spent decades in prison for the murder, which took place on Feb. 21, 1965, when three men opened fire inside a crowded ballroom at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan as Malcolm X was starting to speak.
But the case against them was questionable from the outset, and in the decades since, historians and hobbyists have raised doubts about the official story.
The review, which was undertaken as an explosive documentary about the assassination and a new biography renewed interest in the case, did not identify who prosecutors now believe really killed Malcolm X, and those who were previously implicated but never arrested are dead.
Nor did it uncover a police or government conspiracy to murder him. It also left unanswered questions about how and why the police and the federal government failed to prevent the assassination.
But the acknowledgment by Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney who is among the nation’s most prominent local prosecutors, recasts one of the most painful moments in modern American history.
And at a time when racism and discrimination in the criminal justice system are once again the focus of a national protest movement, it reveals a bitter truth: that two of the people convicted of killing Malcolm X — Black Muslim men hastily arrested and tried on shaky evidence — were themselves victims of the very discrimination and injustice that he denounced in language that has echoed across the decades.
In an interview, Mr. Vance apologized on behalf of law enforcement, which he said had failed the families of the two men. Those failures, he said, could not be remedied, “but what we can do is acknowledge the error, the severity of the error.”
Mr. Vance’s re-investigation, conducted with the Innocence Project and the office of David Shanies, a civil rights lawyer, contended with serious obstacles. Many of those involved in the murder case, including witnesses, investigators and trial lawyers as well as other potential suspects, died long ago. Key documents were lost to time and physical evidence, such as murder weapons, were no longer available to be tested.
“This points to the truth that law enforcement over history has often failed to live up to its responsibilities,” Mr. Vance said. “These men did not get the justice that they deserved.”
Still, the evidence available was significant.
A trove of F.B.I. documents included information that implicated other suspects and pointed away from Mr. Islam and Mr. Aziz. Prosecutors’ notes indicate they failed to disclose the presence of undercover officers in the ballroom at the time of the shooting. And Police Department files revealed that a reporter for The New York Daily News received a call the morning of the shooting indicating that Malcolm X would be murdered.
Investigators also interviewed a living witness, known only as J.M., who backed up Mr. Aziz’s alibi, further suggesting that he had not participated in the shooting but had been, as he said at the trial, at home nursing his wounded legs.
Altogether, the re-investigation found that had the new evidence been presented to a jury, it may well have led to acquittals. And Mr. Aziz, 83, who was released in 1985, and Mr. Islam, who was released in 1987 and died in 2009, would not have been compelled to spend decades fighting to clear their names.
“This wasn’t a mere oversight,” said Deborah Francois, a lawyer for the men. “This was a product of extreme and gross official misconduct.”
The assassination unfolded on a bright February day, at the dawn of what was to be a new phase in Malcolm X’s career as a civil-rights leader.
He had introduced himself to the American public six years earlier, a Nebraska-born street hustler turned minister speaking forcefully on behalf of the Nation of Islam, the Black nationalist group, about the way that white authorities abused their power and brutalized Black people.
Some of his ideas, espoused during his time in the Nation of Islam — he called white people devils and advocated racial separatism — were outside the mainstream even by today’s standards. The news media, which was then almost wholly white, portrayed Malcolm X as a “racist” and a dangerous agitator and referred to the Nation as a “cult.”
But he was also a person of intense fascination, a fiery and persuasive speaker who voiced ideas that many Americans had never heard before. And in 1965, a year after having left the Nation of Islam, he was beginning to define the mission of a new group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity — the subject of his planned speech at the Audubon Ballroom.
But shortly after he began to speak, he was attacked by three gunmen who rushed the stage, firing at him in front of his pregnant wife and three of his daughters and killing him. He was 39.
One suspect, Mujahid Abdul Halim, was apprehended at the ballroom after being shot in the thigh. Mr. Aziz, then known as Norman 3X Butler, was arrested five days later, and Mr. Islam, known as Thomas 15X Johnson, another five days after that. Within a week, the three men, all members of the Nation of Islam, had been charged with murder.
At the trial in 1966, prosecutors cast Mr. Islam, who was once Malcolm X’s driver, as the assassin who fired the fatal shotgun blast. Mr. Halim and Mr. Aziz were said to have followed close behind, firing their pistols. Ten eyewitnesses said they had seen Mr. Islam, Mr. Aziz or both.
But the witness statements were contradictory, and no physical evidence tied Mr. Aziz or Mr. Islam to the murder, or even the crime scene. Both men offered credible alibis, which were backed by testimony from their spouses and friends.
And when Mr. Halim, also known as Talmadge Hayer, took the stand for the second time during the trial and confessed, he insisted that his two co-defendants were innocent.
On March 11, 1966, all three defendants were found guilty and, a month later, sentenced to life in prison.
Even then, evidence was already pointing to another theory of the case.
Reinvestigating the Case
Some of the evidence that appeared to exonerate Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam emerged during their trial, but because key information was withheld by the authorities, its significance only became clear later.
One defense witness, Ernest Greene, testified that he had seen the man with the shotgun, and described him as dark-skinned, stocky and sporting a “deep” beard — a poor match for Mr. Islam, the man who was cast in the role by prosecutors, who was light-skinned, lean and clean-shaven.
But Mr. Greene’s description matched another man, one whose name jurors did not hear: William Bradley, a member of the same Nation of Islam mosque in Newark, N.J., as Mr. Halim. Mr. Bradley was an enforcer for the Nation of Islam, which Malcolm X had joined in 1952 and promoted unceasingly for a dozen years before an acrimonious break the year before the assassination.
He was less than six feet tall, weighed 182 pounds and was dark-skinned. He had been a machine-gunner in the Marine Corps and his criminal history included a charge of possessing an illegal weapon.
The description of Mr. Bradley was in F.B.I. files at the time, and Mr. Halim even identified him as one of the assassins. And the authorities were aware that the Nation of Islam was targeting Malcolm X; a week before the assassination, his house was firebombed while he slept inside with his wife and daughters.
But it would be years before the connection to Bradley became more clear, as a succession of amateur investigators — journalists, historians, biographers and others — took up the case.
One of the most important of these civilians was Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, who hosted a Netflix documentary series early last year that again assembled the case for the two men’s innocence — and others’ guilt. Upon the release of the series, Mr. Vance announced that he would take up the case.
Mr. Vance’s investigators, working with Mr. Islam and Mr. Aziz’s lawyers, examined the evidence that had long been laid out and pored over publicly, including the F.B.I. file on Mr. Bradley. (Mr. Bradley, who changed his name to Al-Mustafa Shabazz, died in 2018 and his lawyer denied that he had participated in the murder.)
The bureau’s files contained a report stating that officials in New York had not been told that Mr. Bradley was a suspect, as well as an informant’s secondhand account that Mr. Bradley was the shotgun assassin.
The panel also interviewed a new witness and reviewed reams of records: public statements, prosecutors’ files, court transcripts, and documents generated during the initial investigation, grand jury proceedings, the trial and post-conviction appeals.
One of the most significant weaknesses in the government’s case, the review found, was Mr. Halim’s confession and his exoneration of his co-defendants.
Although all three defendants were members of the Nation of Islam, prosecutors failed to draw any connection between Mr. Halim, who attended the mosque in Newark and said his co-conspirators were from New Jersey, and Mr. Islam and Mr. Aziz, who attended the Nation’s mosque in Harlem. Several defense witnesses said Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam were home at the time of the murder.
While most of the people the review panel sought to interview were dead, a witness who initially came forward at a screening of the documentary offered an account that seemed to confirm Mr. Aziz’s alibi and had never been heard by the authorities.
The witness, identified as J.M., said he was handling the phone at the Nation’s Harlem mosque on the day Malcolm X was killed when Mr. Aziz called and asked for the mosque’s captain. They hung up while J.M. went to find the captain, and then J.M. called Mr. Aziz back on his home phone. Mr. Aziz answered.
Representatives for the two exonerated men said that the moment meant a lot to Mr. Aziz, and to Mr. Islam’s family. But Mr. Shanies, one of the civil rights lawyers representing them, said their convictions had a “horrific, torturous and unconscionable” effect that cannot be undone.
The two men spent a combined 42 years in prison, with years in solitary confinement between them. They were held in some of New York’s worst maximum security prisons in the 1970s, a decade that bore witness to the Attica uprisings.
Mr. Aziz had six children at the time he was convicted; Mr. Islam had three. Both men saw their marriages fall apart and spent the primes of their lives behind bars.
Even after their release, they were understood as Malcolm X’s killers, affecting their ability to live openly in society.
“It affected them in every way you could possibly imagine, them and their families,” Mr. Shanies said.
In the final episode of the documentary series, Mr. Muhammad, the host, asks Mr. Aziz to sign a petition asking the Manhattan district attorney to review his conviction. Mr. Aziz obliges, but says that the 20 years he spent in prison had erased his faith that his name would ever be cleared.
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.
By Farhad Manjoo, Nov. 17, 2021
The lead prosecutor in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial, Thomas Binger, with the gun Mr. Rittenhouse used to shoot three people. Credit...Pool photo by Sean Krajacic
I’ve spent the past couple of weeks riveted by the murder trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the white teenager who shot and killed two people and injured a third during a night of Black Lives Matter protests and civil unrest in Kenosha, Wis., last year.
It was a turbulent case. For many days the prosecution was on the ropes — some of the state’s witnesses seemed to bolster the defense’s case that Rittenhouse acted in self-defense, while the crotchety judge frequently sided with the defense and blew up at prosecutors. After Rittenhouse began sobbing on the stand last week, it looked as if he’d be certain to walk.
But on Monday, the lead prosecutor, Thomas Binger, offered a meticulously documented closing argument that deftly summarized all the ways Rittenhouse acted unlawfully. We’ll see if the jury buys it, but to me, Binger’s argument had a power beyond this case.
That’s because it cleverly unraveled some of the foundational tenets of gun advocacy: That guns are effective and necessary weapons of self-defense. That without them, lawlessness and tyranny would prevail. And that in the right hands — in the hands of the “good guys” — guns promote public safety rather than destroy it.
In the Rittenhouse case, none of that was true. At every turn that night, Rittenhouse’s AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle made things worse, ratcheting up danger rather than quelling it. The gun transformed situations that might have ended in black eyes and broken bones into ones that ended with corpses in the street. And Rittenhouse’s gun was not just a danger to rival protesters. According to his own defense, the gun posed a grave threat to Rittenhouse himself — he said he feared being overpowered and then shot with his own weapon.
This is self-defense as circular reasoning: Rittenhouse says he carried a rifle in order to guarantee his safety during a violent protest. He was forced to shoot at four people when his life and the lives of other people were threatened, he says. What was he protecting everyone from? The gun strapped to his own body, the one he’d brought to keep everyone safe.
The shootings took place more than a year ago, in the pre-election, post-George Floyd, Covid-soaked summer of 2020. Near the end of August, a Kenosha police officer shot a Black man named Jacob Blake, leaving him partly paralyzed. The small city erupted in large protests that quickly turned violent and riotous.
The scene on the night of Aug. 25, 2020, had the makings of a classic gun-rights fantasy. An unruly mob had descended on private businesses. One such business was Car Source, an auto dealership with three locations in Kenosha. Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time and a resident of Illinois (his father lived in Kenosha), said he had come with a friend to protect Car Source on the invitation of the owner. He said he’d chosen a military-style rifle over a pistol because he believed he could not legally possess a pistol and, he conceded, in part because the rifle “looked cool.”
By the time Rittenhouse arrived, more than a hundred vehicles on a sales lot owned by Car Source had been set on fire. There were burning trash cans on the streets. Gunfire rang out often. Officers in riot gear and armed with tear gas were in control of much of the city, but there were sections where the police pulled back. It was here that the people with rifles took a stand against what they saw as a mob.
But as many witnesses testified, the rifles weren’t very helpful at all. Rittenhouse and others in his group said they didn’t intend to kill people that night; the main reason they brought the big guns, they said, was to deter attacks. That backfired. The guns seemed to invite conflict. Drew Hernandez, a right-wing internet personality who was covering the demonstrations, testified that when “rioters” spotted the men with guns, “they immediately attempted to agitate them, to try and start some conflict with them.”
Later that night, Rittenhouse left the car dealership and his armed peers and found himself in a crowd of strangers he suspected might be hostile to him. The prosecution says the killing began when Rittenhouse pointed his gun at Joseph Rosenbaum, an unarmed, 36-year-old protester, prompting Rosenbaum to run after him in an effort to stop a potential shooting. Rittenhouse denies provoking the attack; he says that Rosenbaum and another man, Joshua Ziminski, who was armed with a handgun, “ambushed” him, and chased him when he tried to run away.
Rittenhouse pointed his gun at Rosenbaum, but the man kept coming. In order to claim self-defense as a justification for shooting Rosenbaum, Rittenhouse had to have believed that Rosenbaum posed an imminent threat of death or great bodily harm to him. Binger asked Rittenhouse how he could have believed that — Rosenbaum “didn’t have any weapon of any kind, correct?”
“Other than him grabbing my gun, no,” he answered.
It’s a telling response — Rittenhouse’s main worry was his own firearm. As Rosenbaum closed in, Rittenhouse said it became clear to him that Rosenbaum wanted to take the rifle — and if he got it, Rittenhouse said, he would have “killed me with it and probably killed more people.” Rittenhouse fired four shots in quick succession, killing Rosenbaum, just as he said it seemed that Rosenbaum lunged for the weapon.
Chaos ensued. Rittenhouse ran, and people who had just seen him shoot Rosenbaum begin to go after him. At some point Rittenhouse stumbled, and while he lay on the road, an unidentified man jumped and kicked him in the head. Rittenhouse shot at “jump kick man” — as he was often called during the trial — but missed. A 26-year-old named Anthony Huber attempted to smash his skateboard on Rittenhouse’s head. Rittenhouse shot Huber in the chest. He died.
Finally, Rittenhouse was met by Gaige Grosskreutz, an E.M.T. who testified he firmly believed in the right to bear arms and prepared for that night like any other: “It’s keys, phone, wallet, gun.”
Grosskreutz said he had rushed to the scene to provide medical help; as he ran, he’d drawn his own gun, thinking that Rittenhouse was an “active shooter.” Rittenhouse and Grosskreutz squared up, face to face, each lethally armed. But Grosskreutz hesitated. After pointing his gun at Rittenhouse, he testified, he decided that he could not take another human’s life. Rittenhouse had no such qualms. He fired, hitting Grosskreutz in his right biceps.
After all this mayhem, all this death, what use were the guns that night?
The guns failed to deter attacks against their owners. According to the defense, Rittenhouse’s gun was a reason Rosenbaum pursued him. And Grosskreutz’s gun was the reason Rittenhouse shot him.
The guns failed any notion of proportionality or moderation. Prosecutors pointed out that Rittenhouse quickly fired four shots at Rosenbaum. Even if Rittenhouse felt genuinely threatened by Rosenbaum, why hadn’t Rittenhouse stopped shooting after the first shot, which could have immobilized Rosenbaum without killing him? (A defense “use of force” expert implied that the gun shot too quickly for him to pause and reassess the threat between shots.)
If you believe Rittenhouse’s defense, the gun also failed at a more basic level, that of ordinary product safety. Rittenhouse had his rifle strapped to his body but was still worried that it could be taken from him. How useful is a gun that can be pulled away from you by a guy who is also hitting you with a skateboard?
And finally, the guns failed at their most vaunted purpose, helping the good guys fight the bad guys. If Rittenhouse was your good guy, what good did his gun do him? How did it help anyone in the community he was trying to protect? It got two people killed, one person injured, and Rittenhouse himself facing charges of homicide.
On the other hand, it looked cool.
By Blanca Lucía Echeverry and Andrew Miller, Nov. 18, 2021
Ms. Echeverry is a human rights lawyer with decades of experience. She served as the deputy ombudsman for Indigenous affairs and ethnic minorities in Colombia’s Ombudsman’s Office. Mr. Miller is advocacy director for Amazon Watch and has collaborated with threatened campesino and Indigenous communities in Putumayo.
Guillermo Legaria/Getty Images
At the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, President Iván Duque of Colombia carried out a charm offensive to convince the world he is an environmental champion who would protect his nation’s vast forests. He promised Colombia would be carbon neutral by 2050 and that, by next year, 30 percent of the country’s land and waters would be protected areas.
But back in Colombia, armed gangs are threatening and murdering community leaders and environmental activists who have been trying to protect Colombia’s forest from destruction by mining, lumber and oil companies. Morbidly, Colombia has emerged as the world’s deadliest place for environmentalists and others defending land rights. Global Witness documented at least 65 killings in 2020.
In the Putumayo region, members of the Border Command, an illegal armed group dedicated to controlling drug production along the border with Ecuador, told residents that they have negotiated with Nueva Amerisur, owned by the multinational oil company GeoPark, to ensure that the company’s work would not be impeded and warned the residents not to interfere. The criminal enterprise declared environmental defender and Amnesty International priority case Jani Silva to be persona non grata. Facing the threat of assassination for her work to protect the water sources and forest from oil exploration, she has been forced to continually move to escape these killers.
Such attacks and threats are rising as deforestation in the Colombian Amazon has surged, surpassing 250,000 acres in three of the last four years. Rainforest sheltering a spectacular biodiversity is being razed for cattle ranching and corporate farms, oil palm production, fossil fuel extraction, illegal gold mining and logging. Leaders of local communities, whose water is being poisoned and whose land has been devastated, have provided the last line of defense against this destruction by organizing and bringing attention to the problem through legal action and publicity campaigns.
Mr. Duque has done little to protect them or to pursue and prosecute their attackers. The National Protection Unit, created in 2011 to protect human rights defenders, has in Ms. Silva’s case provided transportation support and, when pressured, some police presence. Though civilian and military authorities claim to be pursuing and disarming illegal armed groups, as pledged under the 2016 peace accords ending a five-decade internal armed conflict with leftist guerrillas, organizations like the Border Command continue to flourish in the Amazon and elsewhere.
Mr. Duque grudgingly signed a regional environmental convention called the Escazú Agreement, which would oblige the government to protect environmental defenders. But he has shown little urgency in getting Congress to ratify the pact, as cattle, mining and infrastructure industries have mounted a disinformation campaign against it.
Colombia’s illegal armed groups have been able to operate so brazenly, in part, because Mr. Duque has effectively abandoned the peace accord signed by his predecessor. His government has undermined the Special Justice for Peace, established to prosecute those responsible for human rights crimes committed during the conflict, and has neglected the commission that was to prosecute and break up the organizations behind attacks against human rights defenders. Colombia’s paramilitaries — precursors to many of the illegal armed groups operating today — committed the vast majority of civilian killings during the country’s bloody internal conflict.
Mr. Duque used the recent arrest of a high-level drug trafficker, Dairo Antonio Úsuga, known as Otoniel, as an opportunity to claim a victory against the illegal groups responsible for attacking environmentalists. Colombia’s experience since the killing of Pablo Escobar, however, cautions against predictions that the decapitation of a powerful cartel will diminish the drug trade or related violence in the long run.
If Mr. Duque truly wants to be the environmental champion he claims, he needs to invest political capital to ensure congressional ratification of the Escazú Agreement, designating the process as urgent, which would force the Congress to not let the agreement languish, as is currently happening. Additionally, he should push for political support and funding for the Special Justice for Peace and the security commission.
Biden administration officials have recognized the importance of environmental defenders, and earlier this month at the climate conference in Glasgow they unveiled a Plan to Conserve Global Forests. But the plan would not be nearly aggressive enough to fight the epidemic of violence facing forest defenders. The U.S. government should revise this strategy to explicitly include protection of environmental defenders as a core objective. Concrete measures should include speaking out publicly when defenders are at risk and imposing sanctions against specific perpetrators, as a group of U.S. lawmakers recently urged.
Jani Silva’s situation is likely to remain precarious. Concrete actions by Colombian and U.S. government officials, however, could send a strong message that she and other environmental defenders have powerful allies who will leverage their influence to end the scourge of threats, attacks and killings against those who protect the earth for us all.
Hundreds of students walked out of schools and activists demonstrated at the State Capitol, urging Gov. Kevin Stitt to commute the sentence of Julius Jones, who is scheduled for execution on Thursday.
By Michael Levenson, Published Nov. 17, 2021, Updated Nov. 18, 2021
Students at the Oklahoma State Capitol show their support for the death row inmate Julius Jones on Wednesday. Credit...Christine Stanwood/KOCO
Hundreds of students walked out of schools and activists demonstrated outside the office of Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma on Wednesday in a final attempt to persuade him to grant clemency to a death-row inmate who was scheduled to be executed on Thursday.
The inmate, Julius Jones, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 2002. He was accused of killing Paul Howell, who was in a car in the driveway of his parents’ home when he was carjacked and fatally shot in 1999.
Mr. Jones, 41, a former high school basketball player from Oklahoma City, was 19 at the time of the killing, which he says he did not commit. Mr. Howell, a businessman from the suburb of Edmond, was 45.
In September and again this month, the state’s Pardon and Parole Board recommended that Mr. Jones’s sentence be commuted to life in prison with the possibility of parole, a significant step in a case that has garnered national attention, said Cece Jones-Davis, who directs an Oklahoma-based campaign called Justice for Julius.
But Mr. Jones, his family and his supporters are still waiting to hear whether Mr. Stitt, a Republican, will accept or reject the board’s recommendation, Ms. Jones-Davis said. Mr. Jones is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at 4 p.m. on Thursday.
“We are hoping and believing and trusting that the governor is still going to do the right thing,” Ms. Jones-Davis said on Wednesday. “But we are coming down to the hour.”
The Oklahoma City Public Schools estimated that more than 1,800 students across 13 schools participated in walkouts to support Mr. Jones on Wednesday. The district said it “supports our students’ rights to peaceful assembly and their freedom of expression.”
At the State House, scores of Mr. Jones’s supporters prayed, sang and chanted “free Julius Jones.” Madeline Davis-Jones, Mr. Jones’s mother, told the crowd that her son was innocent.
“If my child is executed tomorrow, or any day, it should be without a doubt,” she said. “It shouldn’t be a doubt. Not even a little bit of doubt.”
At least one person, a local pastor, was arrested during protests outside the governor’s mansion on Wednesday night, according to News 4, a TV station in Oklahoma City.
There were also calls for supporters to gather on Thursday for a “Freedom Vigil” in at least two locations, including the capitol and the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Stitt said in an email: “We will not have any comments until after the governor has made a decision.”
If he is executed, Mr. Jones would be the first person put to death by the State of Oklahoma since John Marion Grant, who was convicted of murdering a prison cafeteria worker in 1998, was executed on Oct. 28.
Mr. Grant, 60, was the state’s first inmate to die by lethal injection since 2015, when Oklahoma stopped executions after using the wrong drug in one instance and allowing a prisoner to regain consciousness in another.
Mr. Grant vomited while shaking for several minutes during the execution, which reporters who have witnessed executions called extremely rare in their experience. But state prison officials said a day after Mr. Grant’s execution that they did not plan to make any changes to the state’s lethal injection protocols.
“I will agree inmate Grant’s regurgitation was not pleasant to watch,” Scott Crow, the director of Oklahoma’s prison system, said at a virtual news conference on Oct. 29. “But I do not believe that it was inhumane.”
Mr. Jones, a Black man who has spent about half of his life in prison, has long maintained his innocence.
“I did not kill Mr. Howell,” he wrote in a letter to the parole board in April, after he had exhausted his appeals. “I did not participate in any way in his murder; and the first time I saw him was on television when his death was reported.”
But relatives of Mr. Howell, a white man whose sister and two daughters witnessed his killing, have rejected those claims and said that the efforts to grant clemency to Mr. Jones have caused them pain.
“Our family continues to be victimized by Julius Jones and his lies,” Mr. Howell’s brother, Brian Howell, said at a news conference in September.
Mr. Jones and his supporters have argued that his defense lawyers failed him during his trial — for instance, by neglecting to question family members who have said that he was having dinner with them at the time of Mr. Howell’s killing — and that prosecutors relied too heavily on the testimony of a co-defendant who said that he had seen Mr. Jones commit the crime.
Mr. Jones’s supporters have also argued that racism played a role in his trial and sentencing. African Americans make up a disproportionate number of death row prisoners in Oklahoma and in the United States, and research has shown that people convicted of murder are much more likely to be executed if the person who was killed was white.
Mr. Jones’s appeal for clemency has drawn support from prominent figures in sports, politics and entertainment.
Last month, Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, and Timothy Head, the executive director for the Faith & Freedom Coalition, wrote a letter to Mr. Stitt urging him to commute Mr. Jones’s sentence.
“We believe that doubt about Jones’s responsibility for the capital crime is not insignificant,” Mr. Schlapp and Mr. Head wrote.
On Wednesday, Baker Mayfield, a quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, who won the Heisman Trophy as a player for the University of Oklahoma football team, also expressed hope that Mr. Jones would not be executed.
“We’re 24 hours away,” he told reporters. “So it’s tough. You know, hopefully God can intervene and handle it correctly and do the things he needs to do.”
Mr. Jones’s case has been featured in a 2018 documentary series produced by Viola Davis, a podcast episode last year featuring Kim Kardashian West and a recent episode of “The Late Late Show With James Corden.”
“Julius, his family and everyone on his team are still hopeful Stitt will do the right thing,” Ms. Kardashian West wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.
Jacey Fortin contributed reporting.
One Israeli human rights group said the incident illustrates "how arbitrarily the routine of the lives of Palestinians living under occupation is disrupted, and how easily soldiers violate their rights."
By Brett Wilkins
—Common Dreams, November 18, 2021
Israeli soldiers forced a group of 13 Palestinian children to pose for photographs on September 3, 2021 in the illegally occupied West Bank city of Hebron. (Photo: B'Tselem/screen grab)
Human rights groups this week reacted with outrage to video footage showing Israeli troops forcing Palestinian children from their slumber and photographing them outside their family home—an act that Israel's military admits was "not proper."
The footage, first published Wednesday by the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, captures an incident that occurred on September 3 in the unlawfully occupied West Bank city of Hebron. The recording shows Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers ordering adult Palestinians to wake the frightened children, 13 of whom are gathered into a group and then told to "say cheese" before being photographed outside the home.
A woman in the home asks the troops, "Do you like when the soldiers come and take pictures [of] your kids?"
One of the Israeli soldiers explains that the children are being photographed "because they're throwing stones here," a reference to the futile yet symbolic act of Palestinian youth hurling rocks at heavily armored IDF vehicles.
B'Tselem said that the video shows "how arbitrarily the routine of the lives of Palestinians living under occupation is disrupted, and how easily soldiers violate their rights."
"It seems that for the army, all Palestinians, including boys and girls of elementary school age, are potential criminals—they are allowed to wake them up at any time at night, enter their house and conduct a lineup," the group added.
The London-based, pro-Israel Jewish group Yachad U.K. called the incident "morally repugnant."
Dylan Williams, senior vice president of the U.S.-based pro-Israel lobby group J Street, said the troops committed "a violation of international law."
"If any of the arms or equipment used by Israeli forces during this were U.S.-sourced, it's also a violation of U.S. law," he added.
According to the IDF, the home was invaded following a stone-throwing incident at the nearby illegal Israeli settler colony of Kiryat Arba.
"During the incident, minors were photographed by the officer to identify the stone-throwers," an IDF official said, according to The Times of Israel.
"This officer's conduct was not proper," the army official added. "The officer has received a reprimand on his conduct, and procedures will be sharpened among the forces to prevent the recurrence of similar cases."
In what the IDF called "intelligence mapping," troops entered the homes of Palestinians who are not suspected of any wrongdoing at night in order to gain knowledge of the buildings' residents and layouts. In June, the IDF announced it would significantly curtail the controversial practice.
Earlier this month, Common Dreams reported that the IDF veterans' group Breaking the Silence revealed a sweeping IDF West Bank surveillance operation in which troops are using facial recognition technology integrated with ubiquitous security cameras and smartphones to compile a database of as many Palestinians as possible.
To build the database, IDF soldiers held competitions to see who could take the most photos of Palestinians, including children. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted that it is illegal for IDF troops to photograph minors.
Jones, who has maintained his innocence for more than two decades, was scheduled to receive a lethal injection on Thursday
By Martin Pengelly and agencies, November 18, 2021https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/nov/18/julius-jones-execution-oklahoma-lethal-injection
The governor of Oklahoma, Kevin Stitt, has granted clemency to Julius Jones, a death row inmate who faced execution on Thursday afternoon.
Following a recommendation from the state pardon and parole board, Stitt, a Republican, acted with just four hours to spare before the scheduled state killing.
Stitt reduced Jones’s sentence for the murder in 1999 of Paul Howell, a businessman in the affluent Oklahoma City suburb of Edmond, to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The parole board had recommended life with the possibility of parole.
Jones, 41, has maintained his innocence for more than two decades but had been scheduled to receive a lethal injection at the state penitentiary in McAlester.
“After prayerful consideration and reviewing materials presented by all sides of this case, I have determined to commute Julius Jones’ sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole,” Stitt said in a statement.
The impending execution had prompted protests across Oklahoma and the US. Students at high schools across Oklahoma City walked out of classes. Prayer vigils were held at the state capitol and barricades were erected outside the governor’s mansion.
Even Baker Mayfield, quarterback for the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, weighed in. The Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Oklahoma is among several high-profile athletes and entertainers who have weighed in on Jones’s case.
“Yeah, it’s pretty rough, to be honest with you,” Mayfield told reporters on Wednesday, pausing and his eyes filling with tears. “That’s not something that’s easy to talk about. Been trying to get the facts stated and the truth to be told for a while. It’s a shame that it’s gotten this far, 24 hours away.“
Before his decision, Stitt met with Jones’s attorneys and Howell’s family.
Jones’s mother, Madeline Davis-Jones, who tried unsuccessfully to meet Stitt on Monday, spoke to about 300 people, many students from high schools, who gathered on Wednesday outside Stitt’s office, chanting and singing hymns.
“I don’t want to go to a lynching tomorrow,” Davis-Jones said. “Why would I want to see someone hang? We should be through with that. Do you want your baby, your child to be hanged?”
Jones maintains he was framed by the actual killer, a high school friend and co-defendant who testified against him and was released after 15 years. State and county prosecutors said the evidence against Jones was overwhelming.
Trial transcripts showed witnesses identified Jones as the shooter and placed him with Howell’s stolen vehicle. Investigators found the murder weapon wrapped in a bandanna with Jones’s DNA in an attic space above his bedroom. Jones says the weapon was placed there by the actual killer.
The pardon and parole board twice voted 3-1 to recommend clemency.
Paul Howell’s sister, Megan Tobey, testified she distinctly remembers seeing Jones shoot her brother in front of his two young daughters.
“He is the same person today as he was 22 years ago. He’s still getting into trouble. He’s still in a gang. He’s still lying. And he still feels no shame, guilt or remorse for his action,” Tobey said. “We need Julius Jones to be held responsible.”
In a separate vote on Wednesday, the board voted 3-2 to grant clemency to another death row inmate, Bigler Stouffer, citing concerns with state lethal injection protocols. Stouffer is scheduled to die on 9 December.
Jones’s case was profiled in The Last Defense, a documentary produced by the actor Viola Davis for ABC in 2018. After that, Kim Kardashian West and athletes with Oklahoma ties, including Mayfield and NBA stars Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin and Trae Young, urged Stitt to commute Jones’s sentence.
Stitt appointed two of the three members who voted to recommend clemency: Adam Luck and Kelly Doyle. The third member, Larry Morris, was appointed by the court of criminal appeals.
“Personally, I believe in death penalty cases there should be no doubts. And put simply, I have doubts about this case,” Luck said on the day of Jones’ clemency hearing.
Oklahoma ended a six-year moratorium on executions – brought on by concerns over its lethal injection methods – last month. John Marion Grant, 60, convulsed and vomited as he was being put to death on 28 October.
By Shaila Dewan and Mitch Smith, November 19, 2021
A memorial for Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum, the two men killed by Mr. Rittenhouse. Credit...Chris Tuite/ImageSPACE/MediaPunch, via Associated Press
For many Americans, the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse on all charges on Friday was a vindication of an innocent, if not heroic, teenager with good intentions. For others, it was a brutal disappointment, further evidence that the courts give white men a pass for their actions.
But for legal scholars, it was not a surprise. Once Mr. Rittenhouse claimed that he had acted in self-defense when he shot three men, killing two, during unrest following the police shooting of a Black man in Kenosha, Wis., the onus was on the prosecution to prove otherwise.
“When people look at this, and they’re feeling frustrated, they’re not recognizing just how high the prosecutors’ burden is here,” said Cecelia Klingele, a University of Wisconsin law professor. “It was a real uphill battle to get out from under self-defense.”
The acquittal points to the wide berth the legal system gives to defendants who say they acted out of fear, even if others around them were also afraid.
Wisconsin’s rules for self-defense are well within the national mainstream. If people reasonably believe they are at risk of death or great bodily harm, they can use deadly force. Most states say that someone who provokes violence or is acting illegally waives the right to self-defense, but Wisconsin allows it if the person has “exhausted every other reasonable means to escape from or otherwise avoid death or great bodily harm.”
The state does not have a full-fledged “stand your ground” statute that exists in at least 30 states, but people who believe they are threatened do not have a duty to retreat if they can.
Such rules can be combustible when juxtaposed against the state’s open carry law, which allows for situations like the one at issue in the trial, where numerous strangers were armed and had taken it upon themselves to maintain order.
Self-defense laws typically do not require someone to have good judgment and tend to consider only the moments leading up to the violence, not whether the person willingly entered a turbulent situation or contributed to the chaos.
“Do you look at the choice to go to a heated, confrontational area with a weapon that would be scary to a lot of people?” said Samuel Buell, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at Duke University School of Law, speaking of Mr. Rittenhouse. “You can’t really say that he doesn’t have a right to do that because of the status of gun laws.”
Similarly, even though the three men on trial for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia chased him through a suburban neighborhood, they are claiming self-defense because, they say, Mr. Arbery tried to get control of a shotgun one was carrying.
Gun laws have generally become more permissive — open carry is now legal, to one degree or another, in almost every state. Gun purchases have soared and the Supreme Court appears poised to gut New York State’s handgun permit requirement in a Second Amendment case.
“If we’re going to have a country in which guns are pervasive and the law has little or nothing to say about where and when one may carry a gun and display a gun,” Mr. Buell said, “then we are going to have a situation where self-defense law can’t really handle it.”
The reasonable fear standard for self-defense has given rise to concerns that it is affected by the same racial bias that permeates the justice system. A mountain of social science research shows that Black people, men in particular, are more likely to be seen as threatening.
“The message that this case sends is to shoot first, ask questions later,” said Kami Chavis, director of the criminal justice program at Wake Forest Law. She added, “If we change the race, the age, the victims, if we change some of these dynamics we very well could have had a different result.”
Mr. Rittenhouse went to downtown Kenosha with a military-style assault rifle slung to his chest, saying he wanted to protect property and volunteer as a medic, though he was only 17 years old and not a certified E.M.T.
During the unrest he was pursued by a man, Joseph Rosenbaum, who Mr. Rittenhouse said he feared would wrest control of his gun. Mr. Rittenhouse shot and killed him. That, according to evidence presented at the trial, caused members of the crowd to perceive Mr. Rittenhouse as a dangerous aggressor.
One man, Anthony Huber, used a skateboard as a weapon against him. Mr. Rittenhouse shot and killed him before facing off with a third man, Gaige Grosskreutz, who had pulled out a handgun. Mr. Rittenhouse wounded him in the arm.
Even assuming that everyone involved had the best of intentions, it would be difficult to tell aggressors from defenders. A police officer testified that so many armed people were roving the area that when Mr. Rittenhouse approached with his hands up, he made no connection to the shootings that had occurred.
The jury was not asked to consider whether Mr. Rittenhouse was in error for bringing a gun to a volatile situation. The only gun charge against Mr. Rittenhouse — possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18 — was dismissed at the 11th hour. The judge agreed with a defense argument that the law made an exception for long guns, a common provision that allows teenagers to hunt. The law was written at a time when military-style assault rifles were not widely available.
Since the Parkland, Fla., school shooting in 2018, in which the gunman was 19, Florida, California and Vermont have raised the age to purchase a long gun to 21, and Washington State did the same for semiautomatic rifles.
A Gallup poll last year showed that support for gun regulation, which surged after the Parkland shooting, has ebbed during the coronavirus pandemic and a spike in violent crime. Still, a healthy majority of Americans support stricter gun laws.
“What happened in Kenosha isn’t some fluke,” said Nick Suplina, senior vice president for Law & Policy at Everytown for Gun Safety. “It’s the logical consequence of state and federal laws being written by the N.R.A. and going unopposed for decades.”
For many who followed the case, especially on the political left, the verdict raised uncomfortable questions about the scope of self-defense laws. Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway of Madison, Wis., called the verdict “deeply disturbing” and expressed concern about the message it sent.
“Unfortunately, this will perpetuate distrust in the justice system and further normalize gun violence,” Ms. Rhodes-Conway said in a statement. “Allowing vigilantism to masquerade as self-defense is a terrible precedent.”
Janine Geske, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who now teaches at Marquette University Law School, said the trial was an instance in which many people’s opinions about what was morally acceptable clashed with the jury’s interpretation of what the law allowed.
“I, too, share that view that had he not brought that gun into Kenosha that day, and just come with his medic bag, we probably would not have had any deaths,” Ms. Geske said.
Ms. Geske said she believed that the jurors could have defensibly reached a guilty verdict. They could have, for example, decided that Mr. Rittenhouse’s fear of death or great bodily harm was not reasonable in the situation.
“It’s hard, because most of the victims at some point were approaching Rittenhouse,” Ms. Geske said. “All those factors made it hard for the jury to be satisfied that it wasn’t a reasonable belief.”
By Charles M. Blow, November 19, 2021
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Kyle Rittenhouse, the 18-year-old who shot and killed two men and wounded a third last year during protests of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, was found not guilty Friday of all charges by a Wisconsin jury.
One can argue about the particulars of the case, about the strength of the defense and the ham-handedness of the prosecution, about the outrageously unorthodox manner of the judge and the infantilizing of the defendant. But perhaps the most problematic aspect of this case was that it represented yet another data point in the long history of some parts of the right valorizing white vigilantes who use violence against people of color and their white allies.
Rittenhouse has emerged as a hero and cause célèbre on the right, with people donating to help him make bail and one Republican strategist telling Politico that he “could see a future in which Rittenhouse becomes a featured speaker at the conservative confabs where activists congregate.”
The idea of taking the law into one’s own hands not only to protect order, but also to protect the order, is central to the maintenance of white power and its structures. The killers of Ahmaud Arbery on trial in Georgia are also vigilantes.
George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin in 2012, was also a vigilante, and also embraced by the right. Money also poured in for Zimmerman’s defense.
In 1984, subway vigilante Bernard Goetz shot four Black teenagers who he said were trying to rob him. He was hailed as a hero, but then more details about him began to emerge. One of his neighbors wrote in New York magazine that he had heard Goetz say at a community meeting that “the only way we’re going to clean up this street is to get rid of the spics and niggers.”
This list is long, and doesn’t only include individuals, but also organizations and entire periods of American history. I am sure that many in the white Citizens’ Councils and the Ku Klux Klan also saw themselves as vigilantes.
Perhaps the most prolonged period of violent white vigilantism occurred in the decades following the Civil War, as lynchings surged.
This vigilante impulse, what some call justice and others terror, has been a central feature of the American experience. So has the way people have made heroes of vigilantes, encouraging, supporting and defending them.
When Donald Trump was running for office in 2016, he encouraged his supporters to assault rabble-rousers at his rallies while promising, “I’ll pay the legal fees.”
The St. Louis couple who waved guns in front of Black Lives Matter protesters in the summer of 2020 were invited to speak at the Republican National Convention.
One could argue that the entire Jan. 6 insurrection was one enormous act of vigilantism.
You could also argue that our rapidly expanding gun laws — from stand your ground laws to laws that allow open or concealed carry — encourage and protect vigilantes.
It goes without saying how ominous this all is for the country. Or, to turn the argument around, how intransigent the country is on this issue of empowering white men to become vigilantes themselves.
Black vigilantes are not celebrated, but feared, condemned and constrained by the law.
Perhaps one of the more prominent Black groups that one could argue had a vigilante impulse was the Black Panthers. They were seen as a threat. As I have written before, in 1967, when the Panthers showed up armed at the California State Legislature, a largely white place of power, the public was aghast.
Then-Gov. Ronald Reagan said: “I don’t think that loaded guns is the way to solve a problem that should be solved between people of good will. And anyone who would approve of this kind of demonstration must be out of their mind.”
The California Legislature passed, and Reagan signed, the Mulford Act, which banned the open carry of firearms in the state. The N.R.A. supported the measure. The bill’s author, Don Mulford, said at the time, “We’ve got to protect society from nuts with guns.”
Whether a vigilante is viewed as radical or righteous is often a condition of the skin they’re in.
And the verdict in the Rittenhouse case is only likely to encourage more vigilantes, those who want to keep or impose “order,” those irked by the idea that disorder could flow from injustice, those who don’t want to see streets filled with people demanding equity.
The great threat, and real possibility, is that there are other Rittenhouses out there — young men who watched this verdict and saw how the right has embraced and celebrated a murderer, and now want to follow his lead.
The worst thing for America would be that this case becomes exemplar and precursor.
Protesters in Barcelona are pushing back against foreign investment firms that have bought up thousands of homes over the past decade and are forcing out residents who can’t pay the rent.
By Nicholas Casey and Roser Toll Piraffé, Nov. 21, 2021
A family scheduled for eviction waiting outside their home, owned by Cerberus, in Piera, near Barcelona, Spain, this month. A court eventually delayed the eviction by a month. Credit...Samuel Aranda for The New York Times
BARCELONA, Spain — Ana María Banegas lives on a sun-drenched street in central Barcelona, a short walk from where her children go to school. Outside, a doormat welcomes visitors: “Home Sweet Home.”
But this is where the domestic idyll ends. The building’s owner isn’t your typical landlord, she says, but rather a private equity firm thousands of miles away. And Ms. Banegas is no typical tenant: Along with a dozen other families who have been struggling financially during the pandemic, she has occupied the building since April and now refuses to leave.
“This property belongs to Cerberus,” said Ms. Banegas, referring to Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity firm based in New York. “And from this home, we aim to pressure them.”
Her protest is part of a battle that is being waged in the courtrooms, living rooms and streets of Barcelona, pitting foreign investment firms that have bought up thousands of homes across Spain over the past decade against residents and activists who are using a novel strategy to try to stop them from evicting renters who have fallen behind.
On one side is Cerberus, which, along with other giant investment firms like Blackstone and Lone Star, has been snapping up properties across Spain at bargain prices since the global financial crisis that began in 2008. The firms then put them up for rent at a time when the country’s economy was on a stronger footing.
But the pandemic pushed the Spanish unemployment rate up to 15 percent and evictions nationwide spiked in the first half of 2021. The investment firm landlords sent out a slew of eviction notices to tenants across the country or canceled leases for those who fell behind on the rent, residents said.
In the streets of Barcelona, a group called War Against Cerberus decided to fight back.
When lawyers of private equity firms come with police officers to force residents from their homes, members of the group — some of them longtime housing activists — surround the building to block their entry. As residents are pushed out of apartments, the group sends squatters to occupy properties owned by the firms elsewhere in the city — sometimes breaking in to gain entry.
The activists even took over the offices of a Cerberus real estate servicer in Barcelona for a time last year.
According to War Against Cerberus, dozens of families have occupied buildings owned by private equity firms in Barcelona, which has long been a target of outside investors. That can translate into years of courtroom hearings and millions of dollars in legal fees to remove the squatters.
Miquel Hernández, a spokesman for War Against Cerberus who helped Ms. Banegas find the home where she is squatting, accused the private equity firms of profiting from the economic distress caused by the pandemic.
“They’re treating them like any other asset,” he said, referring to the homes owned by the firms.
The problem has caught the attention of Spain’s national government, led by a left-wing coalition. It has proposed the imposition of rent controls on investment funds and other large landlords.
The proposed legislation, supported by Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, would allow for rent caps for owners with more than 10 properties in areas where rent increases have outpaced inflation.
“We have to civilize a market that has gotten out of control,” said Ms. Colau, a former housing activist who rose to power with an organization that fought against foreclosures. “A problem that was bad before the pandemic has suddenly gotten worse.”
She attributed much of the increase in evictions to investment firms that refused to negotiate agreements with renters who fall behind, choosing instead to force them out and find others who can pay.
Spain imposed a partial moratorium on evictions for much of the pandemic, but only for those in “vulnerable situations,” such as single parents. In cases that went to the courts, the judiciary was seen as siding largely with the landlords.
Cerberus said it was committed to treating every resident with dignity and respect and to following the law.
“We believe it is the responsibility of all corporate citizens to not only respect the dignity of everyone but also appropriately address illegal activity that can harm communities,” a company spokesman said in a statement to The New York Times.
The Association of Rental Housing Owners, a Spanish group which includes some of the outside investment firms, took aim at the proposed housing law, saying that rent controls would only discourage owners from building new rental units during a time of low supply.
The conflict in Barcelona traces its roots to the financial crisis that started in 2008. That downturn hit homeowners hardest, driving many of them, as well as the banks that owned their mortgages, into bankruptcy. The crisis also fueled evictions and the rise of a protest movement to defend homeowners against predatory loans.
But thousands lost their homes anyway and many of them became renters. And in the current crisis, it is renters who have suffered the brunt of the damage, activists say.
As defaults became common and credit harder to come by, the number of renters in the country grew by more than 40 percent over the last decade. At the same time, private firms amassed at least 40,000 properties in Spain, according to estimates by economists and the Spanish news media.
Even so, homeownership has remained relatively high in Spain, at about 75 percent.
In one case in 2013, Blackstone, now thought to be Spain’s biggest landlord, bought more than 1,800 apartments from the Madrid city government, which was low on cash.
But those types of acquisitions did not cause a stir until the pandemic left the firms, like many other landlords, serving up eviction notices for those who could not make the rent.
In the first quarter of 2021, evictions of renters in Spain rose by 14 percent compared with the same period the previous year, according to the government. By the second quarter of this year, they surged to eight times as many as in the same period in 2020.
One complaint about private equity landlords is that being based abroad, they are difficult to reach to negotiate settlements, unlike local landlords.
Irma Vite, a 47-year-old immigrant from Ecuador, first received a notice in 2019 that the lease for her rental apartment would not be renewed by Divarian, a Cerberus-owned real estate company in Spain. She has spent the entire pandemic fighting in courts to remain in the home.
Her story offers a window into the unregulated world of Spanish housing which allowed private equity companies to become such dominant landlords here. She bought the apartment in 2005 for 216,000 euros, or about $267,000 at the time, with no down payment, from a local Spanish bank. Her monthly mortgage payments were €900.
The mortgage had a fluctuating interest rate, however, and by 2009, her payments had risen to €1,200. By 2015, she could no longer afford the payments and she entered foreclosure proceedings with the bank, which allowed her to remain in the home as a renter.
But that bank, Caixa Catalunya, was barely solvent itself. In 2016, it merged with the Spanish giant BBVA, which extended her rental agreement until 2019.
In October 2019, she received a letter from Divarian, the Cerberus company, saying that it now owned the property and would no longer rent to her. Ms. Vite sought help from the War Against Cerberus and has spent the last two years refusing to leave her home.
Cases like hers are becoming more common and have provided War Against Cerberus opportunities to flex its muscles. In October, the group got word of five evictions that were scheduled in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, a town on the outskirts of Barcelona.
When a lawyer representing the firm that owned the apartments arrived with the police, they were met by about 50 activists who surrounded the building. A crowd of residents soon arrived, chanting for the officers to leave.
“You’re vultures,” one of the protesters yelled.
The police backed down, saying that they would give the owners an extension before their eviction.
War Against Cerberus is also trying to play offense against private equity firms by sending residents like Ms. Banegas to occupy apartments that the firms own in Barcelona. Mr. Hernández, the activist spokesman, said that the group’s goal was to eventually pressure Cerberus into agreeing to allow the squatters to remain and pay reasonable monthly rents.
Ms. Vite said she would much rather go back to paying rent than keep squatting. But so far, Cerberus has refused to make an agreement with her and has asked a court to evict her.
An auxiliary nurse at a nearby hospital, Ms. Vite said that she recently came across a man suffering from depression who was also being forced out of his home after not being able to pay the rent, and that they had briefly commiserated.
“I was there as the nurse, he as my patient, and I was just thinking, ‘Look at what’s at the root of all of these problems,’” she said.
Samuel Aranda contributed reporting.
With closing arguments set to begin in the trial of three men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery, those closest to him have kept a prayerful vigil at the courthouse.
By Tariro Mzezewa, Nov. 22, 2021
Akeem Baker, one of Mr. Arbery’s best friends, has tried to watch every moment of the trial. Credit...Nicole Craine for The New York Times
Theawanza Brooks, an aunt of Ahmaud Arbery, was compelled to activism after his death. “I feel that every day that I go out,” she said, “I have to have some kind of representation of Ahmaud.” Credit...Nicole Craine for The New York Times
BRUNSWICK, Ga. — From the moment that Theawanza Brooks heard the initial account that her family was told about her nephew Ahmaud Arbery’s death, it felt off. The authorities, she said, reported that he had been involved in a burglary and killed after a tussle over a gun.
Her own trip to investigate the scene of his death — his blood still visible on the ground — made her only more skeptical. Nearly three months later, when a video became public showing Mr. Arbery being chased, cornered and then shot at close range, she felt vindicated and angry — an anger that has persisted nearly two years.
Ms. Brooks, 37, who works in retail, is among many members of Mr. Arbery’s large extended family and circle of friends who have been both grief-stricken and galvanized to action since his death in February 2020. Over the past month, as the case against the three men charged with murder has played out in the Glynn County Courthouse, they have watched with anguish as the gruesome details of the final moments of Mr. Arbery’s life — but nearly none of his humanity — were described to the jury. Part of the family’s role, Ms. Brooks said, is helping the public understand who her nephew was.
“This activism kicked in me that I never saw myself being a part of,” she said. “I feel that every day that I go out, I have to have some kind of representation of Ahmaud.”
Ms. Brooks has attended the trial regularly, filling notebooks with detailed descriptions of what is said by witnesses, lawyers and the judge. At the end of the day, she cross-references media coverage to make sure her notes are accurate before going live on Facebook to relay the day’s events to people around the world.
Diane Arbery, another of Mr. Arbery’s aunts, has been outside the courthouse all day, every day talking to supporters. So has Carla Arbery, an aunt whose children were especially close to Mr. Arbery. Ruby Arbery, still another of Mr. Arbery’s aunts, has brought home-cooked meals for family members and supporters. Mr. Arbery’s parents have attended every day of the trial, each arriving with his or her own lawyer, and sometimes sitting with high-profile civil rights activists, including the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
“I’ve been trying to watch every second, every minute because I don’t want to miss anything,” said Akeem Baker, one of Mr. Arbery’s best friends since childhood. “I feel like if I take my eyes off it, I don’t want anything to kind of slip through the cracks.”
Many of those closest to Mr. Arbery begin and end the day with a prayer. They pray throughout the day for the strength to keep watching. “We need prayer,” Diane Arbery said. “We’ve got to keep praying, and we ask everyone out there to keep praying for us.”
Last week, Black pastors from across the country joined the family in Brunswick in a show of support after a defense lawyer asked that Black pastors and civil rights leaders not be allowed in the courtroom because they could intimidate the jury.
“My heart is full of just joy in the midst of this broken heart,” Wanda Cooper-Jones, Mr. Arbery’s mother, told the assembled crowd before asking the pastors and activists to say her son’s name.
Ms. Brooks and Mr. Arbery’s other aunts were there too, wearing T-shirts that said, “It’s the Black pastors for me.”
Mr. Arbery, 25, was known to his family and friends as Maud or Quez. He had been a standout linebacker for the Brunswick High School Pirates and dreamed of playing professional football. He left town briefly to attend a technical school but eventually returned to the Brunswick area and was living with his mother. “His mom was his queen,” Mr. Baker said.
He liked rapping and listening to trap music. After a hard day, he sometimes went to Madge Merritt Park, near Brunswick, to rap to clear his mind. He had recently started a job doing landscaping work with his father, and he was also working at a truck wash, according to a friend. He also had a mental illness that caused him to have auditory hallucinations.
James Trimmings, who grew up and played football with Mr. Arbery, described his devotion to his friends. He said Mr. Arbery was always happy to babysit for his two children.
“If you called Maud and he didn’t pick up, he’d call you back,” Mr. Trimmings said. “But if you didn’t answer, he’d come find you because he worried you weren’t OK. Everyone should be so lucky to have a friend like Maud.”
The picture of Mr. Arbery painted by the lawyers for the men accused in his death has been difficult for the family to hear. One lawyer, building an argument that his assailants had reason to believe Mr. Arbery was responsible for a string of neighborhood break-ins, described him as “an intruder” who was caught four times on video “plundering around” a house under construction in the neighborhood.
Mr. Arbery’s aunts and grandmother said that the day the medical examiner spoke was the hardest. The testimony left no doubt in their minds that Mr. Arbery died afraid and alone.
Ms. Brooks has been focused on that moment since she first learned of her nephew’s death. Though she and Mr. Arbery had grown apart after he moved to a different part of town with his mother, they had spent considerable time together in the months before he was killed. She checked in on him every few days while his mother was out of town for work. He didn’t have a car, so she made sure he had groceries.
On Feb. 23, 2020, Ms. Brooks drove to the Satilla Shores neighborhood outside Brunswick as soon as she got off work — her disbelief at the news of Mr. Arbery’s death there compelling her to see for herself.
“I was distraught,” she said. She was surprised to see that the house her nephew was accused of burglarizing had no windows or doors; it was still under construction.
“Burglary,” she said. “It just kept playing in my mind, ‘How can you burglarize this?’”
Ms. Brooks began keeping track of local news articles mentioning Mr. Arbery, trying to piece together what happened. She wanted everyone to know what happened to her nephew and for his killers to be held accountable.
Eventually, three men — Travis McMichael, his father, Gregory McMichael, and their neighbor William Bryan — were charged with murder. The case became among the most high-profile in the country, contributed to the national furor over shooting deaths of Black people and the wave of protests against systemic racism. In Georgia, it propelled lawmakers to enact hate crimes legislation and to largely dismantle the state’s citizen’s arrest law.
In the months since, Ms. Brooks has marched through the streets of Brunswick chanting Mr. Arbery’s name, knocked on doors telling residents the story of her nephew’s life and death and urged them to vote out the district attorney who initially refused to press charges against the suspects in Mr. Arbery’s killing. Her nephew’s name and likeness are on her car, her clothing, her jewelry.
“Travis McMichael got up there and talked about fearing for his son,” Ms. Brooks said. “Maud was someone’s son. What about the son he took away from Wanda and Marcus? The son that we love that we will never see again, who will never go home again?”
By Alan Leveritt, November 22, 2021
Mr. Leveritt is the founder and publisher of The Arkansas Times. His lawsuit against Arkansas’s anti-boycott law is being reviewed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/22/opinion/israel-arkansas-bds-pledge.html
At The Arkansas Times, a publication I founded 47 years ago, our pages focus on small-scale local issues, like protecting Medicaid expansion from the predations of our state legislature and other elements of Arkansas politics, history and culture. So I was surprised when in 2018 I received an ultimatum from the University of Arkansas’s Pulaski Technical College, a longtime advertiser: To continue receiving its ad dollars, we would have to certify in writing that our company was not engaged in a boycott of Israel. It was puzzling. Our paper focuses on the virtues of Sims Bar-B-Que down on Broadway — why would we be required to sign a pledge regarding a country in the Middle East?
I understood the context of that email. In 2017, Arkansas pledged to enforce support for Israel by mandating that public agencies not do business with contractors unless those contractors affirm that they do not boycott Israel. The idea behind the bill goes back 16 years. In 2005, Palestinian civil society launched a campaign calling for “boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights.” Around the world, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or B.D.S., as it became known, gained momentum. In response, Israel and lobbyists have used multiple strategies to quash the movement. In the United States, one such strategy took the form of anti-B.D.S. bills. Currently, more than 30 states have provisions on the books similar to Arkansas’s.
It soon became clear that The Arkansas Times had to answer our advertiser. Though boycotting Israel could not have been further from our minds and though state funding is a significant source of our income, our answer was no. We don’t take political positions in return for advertising. If we signed the pledge, I believe, we’d be signing away our right to freedom of conscience. And as journalists, we would be unworthy of the protections granted us under the First Amendment.
And so, instead of signing, we sued to overturn the law, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, on the grounds that it violates the First and 14th Amendments. We are still fighting it.
The Arkansas legislature is dominated by conservative evangelicals, such as the former Senate majority leader, Bart Hester. He is featured in the new documentary film “Boycott,” directed by Julia Bacha and produced by the group Just Vision. “Boycott” follows three plaintiffs, including me, challenging their states’ anti-boycott laws. In the film, Senator Hester explains that his religious belief motivates everything he does as a government official, including writing Arkansas’s anti-boycott law. He also explains his eschatological beliefs: “There is going to be certain things that happen in Israel before Christ returns. There will be famines and disease and war. And the Jewish people are going to go back to their homeland. At that point Jesus Christ will come back to the earth.” He added, “Anybody, Jewish or not Jewish, that doesn’t accept Christ, in my opinion, will end up going to hell.” Senator Hester and his coreligionists may see the anti-boycott law as a way to support Israel, whose return to its biblical borders, according to their reading of scripture, is one of the precursors to the Second Coming and Armageddon.
In other words, Senator Hester and other supporters of the law entwine religion and public life in a manner that we believe intrudes on our First Amendment rights.
These types of laws are not restricted to states in which fundamentalist Christians hold sway. In 2016, California passed a law requiring large contractors working with a state agency to certify that they will not discriminate against Israel, and Andrew Cuomo, as governor of New York, signed an executive order that compels state entities to divest money and assets from a list of organizations regarded by the state as participating in the boycott. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York proposed national anti-boycott legislation.
Let’s be clear, states are trading their citizens’ First Amendment rights for what looks like unconditional support for a foreign government.
When our case reached the Federal District Court in 2019, the state argued that boycotting was not political speech but rather an economic exercise and therefore subject to state regulation. We found that argument absurd. After all, our nation’s founding mythology includes the boycott of tea. Since then, boycotts have repeatedly been used as a tool of political speech and protest, from the Montgomery bus boycott to end segregation to the Delano grape strike protesting exploitation of farmworkers. University students throughout the country engaged in anti-apartheid boycotts of and divestment from South Africa. In 1982, the right to boycott as a method of collective political speech was upheld by a unanimous Supreme Court ruling in N.A.A.C.P. v. Claiborne Hardware Company.
And yet U.S. District Judge Brian Miller ruled against us. We appealed to the Eighth Circuit — and won — before a three-judge panel in February. But on June 10, a rehearing by the full Eighth Circuit was ordered. That hearing occurred on Sept. 21, and a decision is expected very soon. Frankly, we’re concerned it won’t go our way.
If we lose in the Eighth Circuit, our last hope is the Supreme Court. Ours isn’t the only case out there. In 2018 and 2019, federal courts in Texas, Arizona and Kansas ruled against their states’ anti-B.D.S. laws. If the Supreme Court rules against us, the other favorable rulings could be in jeopardy. Also concerning is that these states have since amended their anti-boycott laws, narrowing their scope so they apply only to companies with a large number of contractors and to public contracts that are more than $100,000 but without addressing what we see as the laws’ fundamental unconstitutionality.
Although the Arkansas press has covered the case, there has been little editorial support for or comment on our fight beyond that. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette signed the pledge — as did Arkansas Business, our business journal. And yet freedom of expression is a sacred American value and foundational to our democratic ideals.
If these anti-boycott laws are allowed to stand, get ready for a slew of copycat legislation. Texas passed two laws that went into effect on Sept. 1 — one prohibiting state agencies from conducting business with contractors that boycott fossil fuels and another preventing agencies from contracting with businesses that boycott firearm companies or trade associations.
What the outcome of The Arkansas Times’s lawsuit will be is unclear. One thing, however, remains crystal clear: These anti-boycott laws, allowing government to use money to punish dissent, will encourage the creation of ever more repressive laws that risk strangling free speech for years to come.