United in Action to STOP KILLER DRONES:
SHUT DOWN CREECH!
Spring Action, 2022
March 26 - April 2—Saturday to Saturday
Co-sponsored by CODEPINK and Veterans For Peace
Friday April 8: Take up the green bandana, the symbol of the increasingly victorious Green Wave in-the-streets fight for abortion rights across Latin America. Campuses, cultural events, social media and workplaces must be awash in GREEN (bandanas, banners, chalk, stickers, etc.). Everyone must show where they stand!
Saturday April 9: Take to the streets in mass protest! With serious determination and rebellious joy, we will wake tens- and hundreds-of-thousands of others up to the emergency and inspire growing numbers to join us.
From there, we will rally even greater numbers in growing nonviolent protests and creative GREEN WAVE resistance, aiming to bring society to a halt and force our demand – that women not be slammed backwards – to be reckoned with and acted upon by every institution in society. NOW is the time to stand up, together, as if our lives depend upon it—for, in fact, they do.
(Find a protest near you or host your own. DM us on social media / 973 544 8228 /
email to info@RiseUp4AbortionRights.org
· New York City 2:00 pm Union Square (@14th Street) RSVP + Share
· Atlanta 2:00 pm Midtown MARTA 41 10th Street NE RSVP + Share
· Austin 12 noon rally at Republic Square Park 422 Guadalupe
1:00 pm march to Governor’s mansion RSVP + Share
· Boston 2:00 pm Boston Commons Free Speech Area across from Massachusetts State House RSVP + Share
· Cleveland 2:00 pm Market Square 25th & Lorain Avenue RSVP + Share
· Chicago 2:00 pm Wrigley Square at Millennium Park, North Michigan Avenue RSVP + Share
· Detroit 3:00 pm W. Warren & Woodward 1 W. Warren Avenue RSVP + Share
· Los Angeles 2:00 pm Hollywood & Highland RSVP + Share
· San Francisco Bay Area 12:00 pm Sproul Plaza UC Berkeley campus, Berkeley RSVP + Share
· Seattle 1:00 pm Seattle Central College Plaza RSVP + Share
RefuseFascism.org national team
This March 19th webinar for Ruchell “Cinque” Magee on his 83rd birthday was a terrific event full of information and plans for building the campaign to Free Ruchell Magee. Two of the featured speakers also spoke at the February 1 webinar for International workers’ action to free Mumia and all anti-racist, anti-imperialist Freedom Fighters—Jalil Muntaqim (who was serving time at San Quentin State Prison in a cell next to Ruchell!) and Angela Davis (who was a co-defendant of Ruchell’s!) A 50 year+ struggle!
Below are two ways to stream this historic webinar sent by the webinar organizers.
Here is the YouTube link to view Saturday's recording:
Here is the link to the Facebook upload:
After The Revolution
By David Rovics
It was a time I'll always remember
Because I could never forget
How reality fell down around us
Like some Western movie set
And once the dust all settled
The sun shone so bright
And a great calm took over us
Like it was all gonna be alright
That's how it felt to be alive
After the revolution
From Groton to Tacoma
On many a factory floor
The workers talked of solidarity
And refused to build weapons of war
No more will we make missiles
We're gonna do something different
And for the first time
Their children were proud of their parents
And somewhere in Gaza a little boy smiled and cried
After the revolution
Prison doors swung open
And mothers hugged their sons
The Liberty Bell was ringing
When the cops put down their guns
A million innocent people
Lit up in the springtime air
And Mumia and Leonard and Sarah Jane Olson
Took a walk in Tompkins Square
And they talked about what they'd do now
After the revolution
The debts were all forgiven
In all the neo-colonies
And the soldiers left their bases
Went back to their families
And a non-aggression treaty
Was signed with every sovereign state
And all the terrorist groups disbanded
With no empire left to hate
And they all started planting olive trees
After the revolution
George Bush and Henry Kissinger
Were sent off to the World Court
Their plans for global domination
Were pre-emptively cut short
Their weapons of mass destruction
Were inspected and destroyed
The battleships were dismantled
Never again to be deployed
And the world breathed a sigh of relief
After the revolution
Solar panels were on the rooftops
Trains upon the tracks
Organic food was in the markets
No GMO's upon the racks
And all the billionaires
Had to learn how to share
And Bill Gates was told to quit his whining
When he said it wasn't fair
And his mansion became a collective farm
After the revolution
And all the political poets
Couldn't think of what to say
So they all decided
To live life for today
I spent a few years catching up
With all my friends and lovers
Sleeping til eleven
Home beneath the covers
And I learned how to play the accordion
After the revolution
Free Em All—Mic Crenshaw and David Rovics featuring Opium Sabbah
“In His Defense” The People vs. Kevin Cooper
A film by Kenneth A. Carlson
Teaser is now streaming at:
Posted by: Death Penalty Focus Blog, January 10, 2022
“In his Defense,” a documentary on the Kevin Cooper case, is in the works right now, and California filmmaker Kenneth Carlson has released a teaser for it on CarlsonFilms.com
Just over seven months ago, California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered an independent investigation of Cooper’s death penalty case. At the time, he explained that, “In cases where the government seeks to impose the ultimate punishment of death, I need to be satisfied that all relevant evidence is carefully and fairly examined.”
That investigation is ongoing, with no word from any of the parties involved on its progress.
Cooper has been on death row since 1985 for the murder of four people in San Bernardino County in June 1983. Prosecutors said Cooper, who had escaped from a minimum-security prison and had been hiding out near the scene of the murder, killed Douglas and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, and 10-year-old Chris Hughes, a friend who was spending the night at the Ryen’s. The lone survivor of the attack, eight-year-old Josh Ryen, was severely injured but survived.
For over 36 years, Cooper has insisted he is innocent, and there are serious questions about evidence that was missing, tampered with, destroyed, possibly planted, or hidden from the defense. There were multiple murder weapons, raising questions about how one man could use all of them, killing four people and seriously wounding one, in the amount of time the coroner estimated the murders took place.
The teaser alone gives a good overview of the case, and helps explain why so many believe Cooper was wrongfully convicted.
To: U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives
End Legal Slavery in U.S. Prisons
Sign Petition at:
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!
Wrongful Conviction podcast of Kevin Cooper's case, Jason Flom with Kevin and Norm Hile
Please listen and share!
Kevin Cooper: Important CBS news new report today, and article January 31, 2022
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:
New Legal Filing in Mumia’s Case
The following statement was issued January 4, 2022, regarding new legal filings by attorneys for Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Campaign to Bring Mumia Home
In her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “There are years that ask questions, and years that answer.”
With continued pressure from below, 2022 will be the year that forces the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and the Philly Police Department to answer questions about why they framed imprisoned radio journalist and veteran Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal. Abu-Jamal’s attorneys have filed a Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) petition focused entirely on the six boxes of case files that were found in a storage room of the DA’s office in late December 2018, after the case being heard before Judge Leon Tucker in the Court of Common Pleas concluded. (tinyurl.com/zkyva464)
The new evidence contained in the boxes is damning, and we need to expose it. It reveals a pattern of misconduct and abuse of authority by the prosecution, including bribery of the state’s two key witnesses, as well as racist exclusion in jury selection—a violation of the landmark Supreme Court decision Batson v. Kentucky. The remedy for each or any of the claims in the petition is a new trial. The court may order a hearing on factual issues raised in the claims. If so, we won’t know for at least a month.
The new evidence includes a handwritten letter penned by Robert Chobert, the prosecution’s star witness. In it, Chobert demands to be paid money promised him by then-Prosecutor Joseph McGill. Other evidence includes notes written by McGill, prominently tracking the race of potential jurors for the purposes of excluding Black people from the jury, and letters and memoranda which reveal that the DA’s office sought to monitor, direct, and intervene in the outstanding prostitution charges against its other key witness Cynthia White.
Mumia Abu-Jamal was framed and convicted 40 years ago in 1982, during one of the most corrupt and racist periods in Philadelphia’s history—the era of cop-turned-mayor Frank Rizzo. It was a moment when the city’s police department, which worked intimately with the DA’s office, routinely engaged in homicidal violence against Black and Latinx detainees, corruption, bribery and tampering with evidence to obtain convictions.
In 1979, under pressure from civil rights activists, the Department of Justice filed an unprecedented lawsuit against the Philadelphia police department and detailed a culture of racist violence, widespread corruption and intimidation that targeted outspoken people like Mumia. Despite concurrent investigations by the FBI and Pennsylvania’s Attorney General and dozens of police convictions, the power and influence of the country’s largest police association, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) prevailed.
Now, more than 40 years later, we’re still living with the failure to uproot these abuses. Philadelphia continues to fear the powerful FOP, even though it endorses cruelty, racism, and multiple injustices. A culture of fear permeates the “city of brotherly love.”
The contents of these boxes shine light on decades of white supremacy and rampant lawlessness in U.S. courts and prisons. They also hold enormous promise for Mumia’s freedom and challenge us to choose Love, Not PHEAR. (lovenotphear.com/) Stay tuned.
—Workers World, January 4, 2022
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
How long will he still be with us? How long will the genocide continue?
By Michael Moore—VIA Email: email@example.com
American Indian Movement leader, Leonard Peltier, at 77 years of age, came down with Covid-19 this weekend. Upon hearing this, I broke down and cried. An innocent man, locked up behind bars for 44 years, Peltier is now America’s longest-held political prisoner. He suffers in prison tonight even though James Reynolds, one of the key federal prosecutors who sent Peltier off to life in prison in 1977, has written to President Biden and confessed to his role in the lies, deceit, racism and fake evidence that together resulted in locking up our country’s most well-known Native American civil rights leader. Just as South Africa imprisoned for more than 27 years its leading voice for freedom, Nelson Mandela, so too have we done the same to a leading voice and freedom fighter for the indigenous people of America. That’s not just me saying this. That’s Amnesty International saying it. They placed him on their political prisoner list years ago and continue to demand his release.
And it’s not just Amnesty leading the way. It’s the Pope who has demanded Leonard Peltier’s release. It’s the Dalai Lama, Jesse Jackson, and the President Pro-Tempore of the US Senate, Sen. Patrick Leahy. Before their deaths, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa and Bishop Desmond Tutu pleaded with the United States to free Leonard Peltier. A worldwide movement of millions have seen their demands fall on deaf ears.
And now the calls for Peltier to be granted clemency in DC have grown on Capitol Hill. Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI), the head of the Senate committee who oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, has also demanded Peltier be given his freedom. Numerous House Democrats have also written to Biden.
The time has come for our President to act; the same President who appointed the first-ever Native American cabinet member last year and who halted the building of the Keystone pipeline across Native lands. Surely Mr. Biden is capable of an urgent act of compassion for Leonard Peltier — especially considering that the prosecutor who put him away in 1977 now says Peltier is innocent, and that his US Attorney’s office corrupted the evidence to make sure Peltier didn’t get a fair trial. Why is this victim of our judicial system still in prison? And now he is sick with Covid.
For months Peltier has begged to get a Covid booster shot. Prison officials refused. The fact that he now has COVID-19 is a form of torture. A shame hangs over all of us. Should he now die, are we all not complicit in taking his life?
President Biden, let Leonard Peltier go. This is a gross injustice. You can end it. Reach deep into your Catholic faith, read what the Pope has begged you to do, and then do the right thing.
For those of you reading this, will you join me right now in appealing to President Biden to free Leonard Peltier? His health is in deep decline, he is the voice of his people — a people we owe so much to for massacring and imprisoning them for hundreds of years.
The way we do mass incarceration in the US is abominable. And Leonard Peltier is not the only political prisoner we have locked up. We have millions of Black and brown and poor people tonight in prison or on parole and probation — in large part because they are Black and brown and poor. THAT is a political act on our part. Corporate criminals and Trump run free. The damage they have done to so many Americans and people around the world must be dealt with.
This larger issue is one we MUST take on. For today, please join me in contacting the following to show them how many millions of us demand that Leonard Peltier has suffered enough and should be free:
President Joe Biden
E-mail: At this link
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland
Attorney General Merrick Garland
E-mail: At this link
I’ll end with the final verse from the epic poem “American Names” by Stephen Vincent Benet:
I shall not rest quiet in Montparnasse.
I shall not lie easy at Winchelsea.
You may bury my body in Sussex grass,
You may bury my tongue at Champmedy.
I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass.
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.
PS. Also — watch the brilliant 1992 documentary by Michael Apted and Robert Redford about the framing of Leonard Peltier— “Incident at Oglala”
Bureau of Labor Statistics
U.S. Department of Labor
For release 10:00 a.m. (ET) Thursday, January 20, 2022
(202) 691-6378 • firstname.lastname@example.org • www.bls.gov/cps
(202) 691-5902 • PressOffice@bls.gov
In 2021, the number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions continued to decline (-241,000) to 14.0 million, and the percent who were members of unions—the union membership rate—was 10.3 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. The rate is down from 10.8 percent in 2020—when the rate increased due to a disproportionately large decline in the total number of nonunion workers compared with the decline in the number of union members. The 2021 unionization rate is the same as the 2019 rate of 10.3 percent. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent and there were 17.7 million union workers.
These data on union membership are collected as part of the Current Population Survey (CPS), a monthly sample survey of about 60,000 eligible households that obtains information on employment and unemployment among the nation’s civilian noninstitutional population age 16 and over. For further information, see the Technical Note in this news release.
Highlights from the 2021 data:
• The union membership rate of public-sector workers (33.9 percent) continued to be more than five times higher than the rate of private-sector workers (6.1 percent). (See table 3.)
• The highest unionization rates were among workers in education, training, and library occupations (34.6 percent) and protective service occupations (33.3 percent). (See table 3.)
• Men continued to have a higher union membership rate (10.6 percent) than women (9.9 percent). The gap between union membership rates for men and women has narrowed considerably since 1983 (the earliest year for which comparable data are available), when rates for men and women were 24.7 percent and 14.6 percent, respectively. (See table 1.)
• Black workers remained more likely to be union members than White, Asian, or Hispanic workers. (See table 1.)
• Nonunion workers had median weekly earnings that were 83 percent of earnings for workers who were union members ($975 versus $1,169). (The comparisons of earnings in this news release are on a broad level and do not control for many factors that can be important in explaining earnings differences.) (See table 2.)
• Among states, Hawaii and New York continued to have the highest union membership rates (22.4 percent and 22.2 percent, respectively), while South Carolina and North Carolina continued to have the lowest (1.7 percent and 2.6 percent, respectively). (See table 5.)
Industry and Occupation of Union Members
In 2021, 7.0 million employees in the public sector belonged to unions, the same as in the private sector. (See table 3.)
Union membership decreased by 191,000 over the year in the public sector. The public-sector union membership rate declined by 0.9 percentage point in 2021 to 33.9 percent, following an increase of 1.2 percentage points in 2020. In 2021, the union membership rate continued to be highest in local government (40.2 percent), which employs many workers in heavily unionized occupations, such as police officers, firefighters, and teachers.
The number of union workers employed in the private sector changed little over the year. However, the number of private-sector nonunion workers increased in 2021. The private-sector unionization rate declined by 0.2 percentage point in 2021 to 6.1 percent, slightly lower than its 2019 rate of 6.2 percent. Industries with high unionization rates included utilities (19.7 percent), motion pictures and sound recording industries (17.3 percent), and transportation and warehousing (14.7 percent). Low unionization rates occurred in finance (1.2 percent), professional and technical services (1.2 percent), food services and drinking places (1.2 percent), and insurance (1.5 percent).
Among occupational groups, the highest unionization rates in 2021 were in education, training, and library occupations (34.6 percent) and protective service occupations (33.3 percent). Unionization rates were lowest in food preparation and serving related occupations (3.1 percent); sales and related occupations (3.3 percent); computer and mathematical occupations (3.7 percent); personal care and service occupations (3.9 percent); and farming, fishing, and forestry occupations (4.0 percent).
Selected Characteristics of Union Members
In 2021, the number of men who were union members, at 7.5 million, changed little, while the number of women who were union members declined by 182,000 to 6.5 million. The unionization rate for men decreased by 0.4 percentage point over the year to 10.6 percent. In 2021, women’s union membership rate declined by 0.6 percentage point to 9.9 percent. The 2021 decreases in union membership rates for men and women reflect increases in the total number of nonunion workers. The rate for men is below the 2019 rate (10.8 percent), while the rate for women is above the 2019 rate (9.7 percent). (See table 1.)
Among major race and ethnicity groups, Black workers continued to have a higher union membership rate in 2021 (11.5 percent) than White workers (10.3 percent), Asian workers (7.7 percent), and Hispanic workers (9.0 percent). The union membership rate declined by 0.4 percentage point for White workers, by 0.8 percentage point for Black workers, by 1.2 percentage points for Asian workers, and by 0.8 percentage point for Hispanic workers. The 2021 rates for Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics are little or no different from 2019, while the rate for Asians is lower.
By age, workers ages 45 to 54 had the highest union membership rate in 2021, at 13.1 percent. Younger workers—those ages 16 to 24—had the lowest union membership rate, at 4.2 percent.
In 2021, the union membership rate for full-time workers (11.1 percent) continued to be considerably higher than that for part-time workers (6.1 percent).
In 2021, 15.8 million wage and salary workers were represented by a union, 137,000 less than in 2020. The percentage of workers represented by a union was 11.6 percent, down by 0.5 percentage point from 2020 but the same as in 2019. Workers represented by a union include both union members (14.0 million) and workers who report no union affiliation but whose jobs are covered by a union contract (1.8 million). (See table 1.)
Among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $1,169 in 2021, while those who were not union members had median weekly earnings of $975. In addition to coverage by a collective bargaining agreement, these earnings differences reflect a variety of influences, including variations in the distributions of union members and nonunion employees by occupation, industry, age, firm size, or geographic region. (See tables 2 and 4.)
Union Membership by State
In 2021, 30 states and the District of Columbia had union membership rates below that of the U.S. average, 10.3 percent, while 20 states had rates above it. All states in both the East South Central and West South Central divisions had union membership rates below the national average, while all states in both the Middle Atlantic and Pacific divisions had rates above it. (See table 5 and chart 1.)
Ten states had union membership rates below 5.0 percent in 2021. South Carolina had the lowest rate (1.7 percent), followed by North Carolina (2.6 percent) and Utah (3.5 percent). Two states had union membership rates over 20.0 percent in 2021: Hawaii (22.4 percent) and New York (22.2 percent).
In 2021, about 30 percent of the 14.0 million union members lived in just two states (California at 2.5 million and New York at 1.7 million). However, these states accounted for about 17 percent of wage and salary employment nationally.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic Impact on 2021 Union Members Data
Union membership data for 2021 continue to reflect the impact on the labor market of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Comparisons with union membership measures for 2020, including metrics such as the union membership rate and median usual weekly earnings, should be interpreted with caution. The onset of the pandemic in 2020 led to an increase in the unionization rate due to a disproportionately large decline in the number of nonunion workers compared with the decline in the number of union members. The decrease in the rate in 2021 reflects a large gain in the number of nonunion workers and a decrease in the number of union workers. More information on labor market developments in recent months is available at:
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
Mark Miles, a Black officer with the Maryland-National Capital Park Police, says in a lawsuit that his white supervisor and other officers made hateful comments in a work-related text chain.
By Michael Levenson, March 16, 2022https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/16/us/black-lives-matter-montgomery-police.html
The Maryland-National Capital Park Police said it “does not tolerate racism or harassment in the workplace.” Credit...MNCPP
In a series of text messages, a white supervisor and other police officers in Montgomery County, Md., talked about preparing for a “race war,” and expressed hope that Black Lives Matter protesters would be killed, according to a federal lawsuit filed this week by a Black colleague.
The officer, Mark Miles of the Maryland-National Capital Park Police, says in the lawsuit that his supervisor and other officers repeatedly made racist, hateful and offensive comments on a group text chain that was used to discuss work assignments and other business.
The officers sent the texts, which were excerpted in the lawsuit, as protests set off by the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis in May 2020 swept across the United States, increasing scrutiny of police brutality and racism.
At the time, Officer Miles, who was hired in October 2019, was the only Black officer in his squad, known as “Shift 5,” which he joined in March or April of 2020, and which operated primarily in Montgomery County, outside Washington. The department also polices parks in Prince George’s County, Md.
According to the lawsuit, the unit’s supervisor, Sgt. Stephanie Harvey, questioned whether Officer Miles, who is mixed race and identifies as Black, would be “on our side” in a “race war.”
“At least half of u is!” she texted, according to the lawsuit.
Another time, she said she was “ready” for a “race war,” and added, “I need more ammo though,” the lawsuit states.
When discussing Black Lives Matter protesters, she texted: “Well they got the Army out there sooooo … hopefully they will get to kill some people,” and, “Kill em all,” the lawsuit states. When an officer sent a photo of an albino squirrel, Sergeant Harvey replied: “Squirrels gotta Nazi too,” the lawsuit states.
During roll call on Aug. 4, 2020, Sergeant Harvey referred to a squad meeting about two weeks earlier during which she had told the chief that the department should not support Black Lives Matter demonstrators.
“Why didn’t you speak up?” Sergeant Harvey asked Officer Miles, according to the lawsuit. “You’re the only half-colored on the squad.” The other officers laughed at the comment, the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit, which was filed on Monday in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, accuses the department of harassment, discrimination and retaliation. It seeks economic and compensatory damages, the termination of Sergeant Harvey’s employment and the appointment of an independent monitor to ensure fairness in the Park Police, among other actions.
“Fundamentally, he wants to see things in the department change,” Erika Jacobsen White, Officer Miles’s lawyer, said on Wednesday. “The fact that this kind of overt racist behavior has gone on unchecked inside the Police Department is just tremendously egregious, and it affects not only Officer Miles but the citizens they are charged to protect.”
Martin Oliverio, a lawyer who represents Sergeant Harvey, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
In a statement, the Maryland-National Capital Park Police said: “When a series of secret text messages among a group of Park Police officers came to the attention of our management, we promptly initiated an investigation and took appropriate action based on the findings of that inquiry.”
The statement adds, “In accordance with the Maryland Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, several officers were suspended and referred to the disciplinary process for termination.”
“While we cannot disclose the details of individual personnel actions or pending disciplinary proceedings, the suggestion that Park Police management ignored allegations of misconduct by this group of officers is simply incorrect, and we will make the results of the trial board process public at the appropriate time,” the statement says.
The Park Police leadership team “does not tolerate racism or harassment in the workplace and will not hesitate to put a stop to any such behavior whenever it arises,” the statement says.
The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 30, which represents officers in the department, declined to comment on the lawsuit while the trial board was still deliberating.
But the organization said in a statement that it “works tirelessly to see that all members are treated fairly, have the best possible work environment and are afforded their due process rights as defined by law.”
The lawsuit says that while Sergeant Harvey may have been suspended in March 2021, she and other officers who engaged in “racist vitriol” are still employed by the department and several of those who made racist comments have been promoted to supervisory roles.
Officer Miles, however, was ostracized by the department after he complained about the harassment to a captain, to a lieutenant in Internal Affairs and to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the lawsuit states.
He was removed from the Shift 5 text message group, stopped getting invitations to group dinners and was pressured to transfer out of the unit, the lawsuit states. Although he wanted to remain in the squad, the lawsuit states that, in November 2021, he was “involuntarily transferred” to a less desirable night shift.
She fought oppression in public and private spheres, and shaped her son’s education as he evolved into a powerful thinker and speaker.
By Jolie Solomon, March 19, 2022https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/19/obituaries/louise-little-overlooked.html
This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.
For more than 50 years, the few Americans who knew the name Louise Little had one, maybe two, images of her.
In the first, on a dark night in 1925, a young woman trembles on a porch in Omaha, Neb., three children at her skirts, the future Malcolm X in her belly, while Klansmen circle the house shattering windows.
In the second image, 14 years later, the same woman, now a widowed, careworn mother of eight, is shuffled into a sheriff’s car and driven off to a mental asylum, her children left to the mercy of the state authorities.
The first story opens “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (1965), and it became ubiquitous in the many books and films about his life that followed. The second consigned Little to obscurity: She disappeared behind the tall brick walls of the asylum, where she remained for 25 years.
Both stories are keys to the narrative of a boy, born Malcolm Little, who rose from violence and poverty to become a global figure in the struggle for Black rights. But both have played too neatly into the bluntest of tropes about Black women and erased vital truths not only about Malcolm’s life but also the arc of Black history.
Now, as a new generation of biographers reclaim Little’s life, these images of her have been transfigured: Louise Little emerges as a formidable and nuanced protagonist who, like other Black women over the centuries, fought oppression in both public and private spheres. The reframing of her life corrects a tradition that has presented Black women activists as exceptions, and has missed the critical role of Black mothers. Anna Malaika Tubbs says it precisely in the subtitle of her 2021 book, “The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation.”
The K.K.K. targeted the Little home because Louise and her husband, Earl, were unapologetic activists who pushed a message of revolution in the new Black communities of the unwelcoming Midwest. On that terrifying night on her porch, recalled her eldest son, Wilfred, she drew herself up to her full 5 feet 8 inches and spoke with her characteristic calm until the Klansmen retreated. Her institutionalization trapped her and traumatized her children, but it came only after she had waged an eight-year battle against welfare workers, police and judges — the powers that have epitomized structural racism.
Helen Louise Langdon was born on the Caribbean island of Grenada in 1894 or 1897. Her birth year is just one of many details that are hard to pin down. Larger questions about her life are also matters of dispute or interpretation in the now growing literature about her. Did a white man named Norton, her biological father, have a relationship with Louise’s mother, the much younger Edith, or did he rape her? How did Louise feel about her fair skin, which complicated her relationships with her husband, with Malcolm and with any community where she lived?
Louise was a baby when Edith died, so she was raised by her grandmother Mary Jane Langdon and her aunt Gertrude. Mary Jane and her husband, Jupiter, who also died when Louise was small, were captured in West Africa when they were young but were freed by the British Navy sometime after 1833, when imperial Britain banned slavery. The Langdons celebrated their African roots and Grenada’s proud legacy of rebellion against occupiers while living a code of self-reliance. They farmed their own land and each plied a trade, Jupiter as a carpenter, Mary Jane as a herbalist and Gertrude as a seamstress.
Louise studied at a local Anglican school, excelled in writing, spoke English, French and Creole and absorbed world history — however slanted a version — from the Royal Reader textbooks given to millions of children across the British Empire.
At about 21, she embarked alone on a journey of more than 3,000 miles, from the port of St. George in Grenada to Montreal, where her uncle had emigrated. He introduced her to the growing Black nationalist movement led by Marcus Garvey. Little was immediately drawn to Garvey’s ethos of self-determination and Pan-African confraternity — as was Earl Little, a Baptist minister and recent immigrant who had escaped the violence of Jim Crow Georgia. The two married after meeting at a Garvey event.
Their marriage proved turbulent. Earl, haunted by what he had suffered in the South, was sometimes calmed, sometimes provoked by the more hopeful, worldly Louise; she, by contrast, had escaped “exposure to America’s more toxic form of racism,” according to “The Dead Are Arising,” a 2020 biography of Malcolm X by Les Payne and his daughter, Tamara Payne.
By most accounts Earl was abusive at times. But the marriage was also a “stable merger of shared striving,” the Paynes wrote, powered by shared passions for their children, for personal and political autonomy and for their work.
The young couple arrived in Omaha — their first assigned post as Garvey missionaries — in the wake of the Red Summer of 1919, when dozens of American cities were convulsed by racial violence. The thousands-strong lynch mobs there were particularly notorious.
The Littles set to work founding a Garvey chapter, as they would in cities in Wisconsin and Michigan over the next decade. Earl recruited at home and on the road. Louise was chapter secretary and a reporter for Garvey’s newspaper, The Negro World. According to “The Life of Louise Norton” (2021), by Jessica Russell (with contributions by Little family members), the family sheltered Garvey when he was in flight from federal agents on charges of mail fraud, and Louise wrote material for a national campaign urging President Calvin Coolidge to grant Garvey clemency.
Wherever they settled their growing family, the Littles were a provocation. Not only did they spread Garvey’s bold rhetoric, but their own literacy and economic autonomy were also an affront. When one of their homes in a white area burned down, Earl, a skilled carpenter, quickly rebuilt it. Louise worked as a seamstress and sold her own designs. Most of the family’s livelihood came from farming and hunting — on land they owned, a rarity in sharecropping America. Their family car was another anomaly — as was Louise’s driving it. They were continually threatened by white neighbors and officials, and many Black residents were afraid to be seen with them.
As the Little children began to attend school, Louise took on a new role: a prescient form of the activist parent. She worked to counter what the children were taught, correcting the routine slander about Black people to inoculate her children against self-hatred. If she heard of a particularly egregious remark or lesson, she would march into the school and demand respect. She took the children to various churches and temples to sample religious ideas and had them sing the alphabet in French, read aloud from The Negro World and another newspaper, The West Indian, and look up every new word in the family dictionary. By the seventh grade, Malcolm had top grades and was class president.
Family life, solid if not secure, was shattered in 1931, when Earl died after he was run over by a streetcar in Lansing, Mich. The idea that the incident was not an accident — that Earl could have been murdered — became a touchstone of Malcolm’s life story, though it has largely been refuted.
Even with help from her oldest children, Louise struggled to keep the family fed in the depths of the Great Depression and in the throes of escalating harassment.
First, an insurance company insisted that Earl had committed suicide and refused to pay out on the $10,000 policy that the Littles had so carefully funded. When Louise reluctantly accepted federal relief money, violating her values, she became subject to new levels of scrutiny. Local officials routinely withheld her relief checks while pushing her to sell her land.
Hope appeared briefly in the form of a man courting her. But when she became pregnant, he left town. She was suffering from hunger, overwork and most likely postpartum depression when the authorities used her out-of-wedlock birth — and delinquent behavior by Malcolm — as excuses to attack with fresh vigor. A judge first removed Malcolm from the home, then ordered Little’s other children to be placed in foster care. Soon after, the judge engineered Little’s commitment to an institution.
Malcolm saw his mother twice during her 25 years of institutionalization, the same years he was evolving into a powerful thinker and speaker as a prominent figure in the Nation of Islam. His renown very likely helped get Little released in 1963, after years of petitions by his siblings.
Her saw her again at a joyous family reunion. Less than two years later, he was assassinated.
In her last years, Little lived quietly with one of her daughters in the celebrated Black community of Woodland Park, Mich. Her ashes were scattered there after her death, on Dec. 18, 1989. She was believed to be 91.
Malcolm’s speeches and writing reflected a deep ambivalence about his mother. In his autobiography, written with Alex Haley and published after Malcolm’s death, he sounded contrite in allowing that his behavior had accelerated Louise’s decline. But he also seemed to justify Earl’s abuse of Louise because she had showed off her superior education, and he sought to erase any hint that his educated mother had educated him.
For years the autobiography set the tone for any view of Little. But beginning in 2003, letters that Malcolm wrote to family members have surfaced to present a different picture. The scholar Garrett Felber, who has had access to the letters, referred to one that Malcolm wrote to his brother Philbert in 1949. Their mother had suffered at the hands of the state, Malcolm wrote, because the authorities knew that “she was not ‘deadening our minds.’”
He added, “My accomplishments are ours, and yours are mine, but all of our achievements are Mom’s, for she was a most Faithful Servant of the Truth years ago. I praise Allah for her.”
The officer, a member of the Kenosha Police Department in Wisconsin, has resigned from his school security job.
By Sophie Kasakove, March 19, 2022https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/19/us/kenosha-officer-kneel-neck-girl.html
In this still image from a video, Shawn Guetschow, working off-duty as a security guard at Lincoln Middle School, holds a student to the floor and puts his knee on her neck after a fight between her and another student in the cafeteria. Credit...Kenosha Unified School District
A police officer in Kenosha, Wis., has resigned from his position as a school security officer after video circulating on social media showed him restraining a 12-year-old student by putting his knee on her neck.
Surveillance footage released on Friday by the Kenosha Unified School District shows a fight on March 4 between two students in the cafeteria at Lincoln Middle School. In the video, school district employees intervene, including a Kenosha Police Department officer working off-duty for the school district. The officer, Shawn Guetschow, has been an officer with the Kenosha police for four years, according to the department.
The video shows Mr. Guetschow restraining the student and kneeling on her neck for at least 20 seconds. The girl’s name has not been released.
Drew DeVinney, an attorney for the girl’s father, Jerrel Perez, said that Mr. Perez took his daughter to the emergency room that night to be evaluated for neck injuries and concussion symptoms. Mr. DeVinney said she was undergoing continued therapy and neurological evaluation to determine the extent of her injuries and that she was given a doctor’s note permitting two weeks of medical leave while she recovers.
“She’s humiliated, she’s traumatized,” Mr. Perez said at a news conference this week, adding that every day, she tells him, “‘Daddy, I don’t want to go to school.’”
Mr. DeVinney noted that the maneuver by Mr. Guetschow mirrored the one used by Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.
“The officer continued to push his knee into Jerrel’s daughter’s neck as she told him she couldn’t breathe,” Mr. DeVinney said.
This week, Mr. Guetschow resigned from his position with the school district, citing the “mental and emotional strain” it placed on his family, and “the lack of communication and or support I have received from the district.” The police department has not said whether it would take action against the officer and did not respond to a request for comment. Efforts to reach Mr. Guetschow’s police union were unsuccessful.
In 2021, Gov. Tony Evers of Wisconsin signed a package of bills involving the use of force, including a bill prohibiting the use of chokeholds by law enforcement. But even without this legislation, Mr. Guetschow’s actions constitute excessive force, Mr. DeVinney said.
“I want to see this officer get charged, because if it was me or another parent or any adult that put their knee on a kid, that would be abuse,” Mr. Perez said. “Why does that make him any different?”
Mr. DeVinney said that the family intends to bring a lawsuit against Mr. Guetschow, the police department and the school district. The family is also working to get the police department to dismiss a charge of disorderly conduct against the student.
In a statement a few days after the incident, the department said that it was “investigating the incident in its entirety while being cautious not to make conclusions based off a small piece of information shared on social media.”
The school district declined to comment pending possible litigation.
A database used by the New York Police Department violates state law and the Constitution, the Legal Aid Society contends in a lawsuit.
By Troy Closson, March 22, 2022https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/22/nyregion/nyc-dna-database-nypd.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage§ion=New%20York
The New York Police Department instructs detectives to offer water, soda, a cigarette, gum or food to people whose DNA is sought -- and to collect the item once they leave. Credit...Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times
Three years ago, Shakira Leslie was returning home from a cousin’s birthday party in the Bronx when officers pulled over her friend’s car for a traffic infraction. After she got out of the back seat, the police searched her and found nothing illegal.
But when a gun was found in another passenger’s bag, everyone in the car was arrested, charged with weapon possession and taken to a precinct. There, Ms. Leslie waited for more than 12 hours without getting anything to eat or drink, she said — until officers brought her into an interrogation room and gave her a cup of water.
Eventually, she was released, and the charge against her was dropped.
But weeks later, Ms. Leslie learned new details about the night of her arrest that rattled her: The police had taken the cup and collected her DNA from it without asking. Officials later tested it and used it to determine that she had not handled the gun. “I was shocked, upset. I just felt violated,” said Ms. Leslie, 26, a hair stylist. “I completely lost trust for N.Y.P.D.”
Her DNA was entered into a city database that contains tens of thousands of profiles, and her lawyers say it remained there, even though that night three years ago is the only time she has ever been arrested.
Ms. Leslie is a plaintiff in a federal class-action lawsuit filed late Monday by the Legal Aid Society, which accuses the city of operating an illegal and unregulated DNA database in violation of state law and constitutional protections against unreasonable searches.
The suit calls for DNA profiles that lawyers argue were gathered unlawfully to be expunged and for the database to be shut down entirely.
“Thousands of New Yorkers, most of whom are Black and brown, and many of whom have never been convicted of any crime, are illegally in the city’s rogue DNA database,” Phil Desgranges, a lawyer in the Special Litigation Unit at Legal Aid, said in a statement.
“We simply cannot trust the N.Y.P.D. to police itself, and we look forward to judicial review of these destructive practices to bring our clients the justice they deserve,” he said.
Sgt. Edward Riley, a spokesman for the New York Police Department, said in a statement that officials would review the suit, adding that they believe the use of DNA helps bring justice.
“The driving motivation for the NYPD to collect DNA is to legally identify the correct perpetrator, build the strongest case possible for investigators and our partners in the various prosecutors’ offices and bring closure to victims and their families,” he said.
The city medical examiner’s office, which maintains the database, said that it complies with applicable laws and is operated “with the highest scientific standards,” set by independent accrediting bodies.
The dispute underscores tensions that have erupted in cities across the country over efforts to increase the use of technology and surveillance tactics in policing and comes amid a highly charged local debate over elevated gun violence. In New York, Mayor Eric Adams has called for expanding the use of facial recognition and software to identify gun carriers, which he argues could aid in crime fighting.
But civil liberties advocates and privacy groups have contended that the advancements come at the expense of communities of color, infringe on the rights of people who have not been convicted of crimes and place them at risk of wrongful conviction if errors are made.
“You can change your Social Security number if you’re a victim of identity theft. You can’t change your DNA,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “You’re creating this constant threat not for months, not for years, but the rest of your life, that you can be targeted by this information.”
The genetic database has come under fire in recent years for the tactics the police use to collect DNA samples, often without a person’s consent, lawyers say. The department’s Detective Guide instructs detectives to offer a water bottle, soda, cigarette, gum or food to someone being questioned in connection with a crime whose DNA is sought — and to collect the item once they leave.
Those practices have invited scrutiny in high-profile cases, like when detectives offered a McDonald’s soda to a 12-year-old boy who was facing a felony charge in 2018, took the straw and tested it for DNA. The boy’s profile did not match crime-scene evidence but remained in the system for over a year.
New York State law requires a conviction or a court order before someone’s DNA can be stored in the state-run databank. But the city’s database, which contains more than 31,800 profiles and is known as the Local DNA Index System, includes DNA from people like Ms. Leslie, who have been arrested or questioned but not convicted.
The specific demographics of those in the database are unclear, but they most likely reflect arrest patterns in the city, where about 75 percent of people arrested over the past decade were Black or Latino.
The suit in New York mirrors one filed last year in Orange County, Calif., in which lawyers argued that a database of DNA samples maintained by the district attorney’s office ran afoul of state law and violated residents’ right to due process. (That county’s database, which contains 200,000 DNA profiles, is significantly larger than New York City’s, even though its population is much smaller.)
While state and federal DNA databases are subject to legislative oversight, New York City’s lacks independent supervision, which civil liberties groups argue often leads to a failure to address questions over legality, privacy, effectiveness and data security.
Facing criticism, the Police Department overhauled rules for the database in 2020. It conducted an initial audit and flagged for removal samples that were more than two years old and had not been linked to an ongoing investigation. Officials pledged to routinely repeat the process for new profiles, and about 4,000 have been removed since then.
State legislators have also weighed a bill that would ban New York City and other local governments from operating their own DNA databases.
Howard Baum, a former assistant director at the city medical examiner’s office who helped build the system, has said it has grown far beyond its intended purpose, size and scope.
“I know that the N.Y.P.D. has worked hard to reform its policies, but as I’ve said before, the new policy is half-baked,” he wrote in testimony for a City Council hearing on the database in 2020. “No arrest, no conviction, but the government is keeping your DNA. What possible justification is there for that?”
The police and prosecutors say that the database is a crucial tool and removing it would be damaging.
Rodney Harrison, the Police Department’s former chief of department, said two years ago that the database had led to 5,000 matches since 2015. He argued that expansive changes to it could lower the number of leads in investigations and create “unintended consequences for the innocent.”
“To drop this valuable science would be a grave mistake to anyone invested in transforming our criminal justice system by better ensuring citizens’ rights while continuing to keep New Yorkers safe,” wrote Mr. Harrison, who is now the police commissioner in Suffolk County.
The database has come under particularly heavy scrutiny for including minors, from whom the Police Department said in 2020 they would no longer collect DNA in connection with misdemeanors. City Council members this year are expected to reintroduce a bill that would prohibit the collection of DNA from minors in all cases without a parent’s consent.
But Oleg Chernyavsky, a top lawyer for the Police Department, argued at a Council hearing on Friday that the bill would make police work more difficult and said that people under 18 made up less than 2 percent of the current database.
Many experts on DNA evidence say that vast databases that include large numbers of people who have only been questioned or arrested on minor charges can be less effective because of the increased likelihood that a crime scene sample will produce a partial match with an innocent person.
“There’s this perception that the bigger the database, the better for public safety — and that hasn’t been borne out,” said Brandon L. Garrett, a law professor at Duke University who has extensively studied the use of DNA evidence. “The more innocent people’s stuff you have in these databases, the more its crime-fighting ability is harmed.”
The coronavirus was expected to devastate the continent, but higher-income and better-prepared countries appear to have fared far worse.
By Stephanie Nolen, March 23, 2022https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/23/health/covid-africa-deaths.html
KAMAKWIE, Sierra Leone — There are no Covid fears here.
The district’s Covid-19 response center has registered just 11 cases since the start of the pandemic, and no deaths. At the regional hospital, the wards are packed — with malaria patients. The door to the Covid isolation ward is bolted shut and overgrown with weeds. People cram together for weddings, soccer matches, concerts, with no masks in sight.
Sierra Leone, a nation of eight million on the coast of Western Africa, feels like a land inexplicably spared as a plague passed overhead. What has happened — or hasn’t happened — here and in much of sub-Saharan Africa is a great mystery of the pandemic.
The low rate of coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths in West and Central Africa is the focus of a debate that has divided scientists on the continent and beyond. Have the sick or dead simply not been counted? If Covid has in fact done less damage here, why is that? If it has been just as vicious, how have we missed it?
The answers “are relevant not just to us, but have implications for the greater public good,” said Austin Demby, Sierra Leone’s health minister, in an interview in Freetown, the capital.
The assertion that Covid isn’t as big a threat in Africa has sparked debate about whether the African Union’s push to vaccinate 70 percent of Africans against the virus this year is the best use of health care resources, given that the devastation from other pathogens, such as malaria, appears to be much higher.
In the first months of the pandemic, there was fear that Covid might eviscerate Africa, tearing through countries with health systems as weak as Sierra Leone’s, where there are just three doctors for every 100,000 people, according to the World Health Organization. The high prevalence of malaria, H.I.V., tuberculosis and malnutrition was seen as kindling for disaster.
That has not happened. The first iteration of the virus that raced around the world had comparatively minimal impact here. The Beta variant ravaged South Africa, as did Delta and Omicron, yet much of the rest of the continent did not record similar death tolls.
Into Year Three of the pandemic, new research shows there is no longer any question of whether Covid has spread widely in Africa. It has.
Studies that tested blood samples for antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, the official name for the virus that causes Covid, show that about two-thirds of the population in most sub-Saharan countries do indeed have those antibodies. Since only 14 percent of the population has received any kind of Covid vaccination, the antibodies are overwhelmingly from infection.
A new W.H.O.-led analysis, not yet peer-reviewed, synthesized surveys from across the continent and found that 65 percent of Africans had been infected by the third quarter of 2021, higher than the rate in many parts of the world. Just 4 percent of Africans had been vaccinated when these data were gathered.
So the virus is in Africa. Is it killing fewer people?
Some speculation has focused on the relative youth of Africans. Their median age is 19 years, compared with 43 in Europe and 38 in the United States. Nearly two-thirds of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is under 25, and only 3 percent is 65 or older. That means far fewer people, comparatively, have lived long enough to develop the health issues (cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease and cancer) that can sharply increase the risk of severe disease and death from Covid. Young people infected by the coronavirus are often asymptomatic, which could account for the low number of reported cases.
Plenty of other hypotheses have been floated. High temperatures and the fact that much of life is spent outdoors could be preventing spread. Or the low population density in many areas, or limited public transportation infrastructure. Perhaps exposure to other pathogens, including coronaviruses and deadly infections such as Lassa fever and Ebola, has somehow offered protection.
Since Covid tore through South and Southeast Asia last year, it has become harder to accept these theories. After all, the population of India is young, too (with a median age of 28), and temperatures in the country are also relatively high. But researchers have found that the Delta variant caused millions of deaths in India, far more than the 400,000 officially reported. And rates of infection with malaria and other coronaviruses are high in places, including India, that have also seen high Covid fatality rates.
So are Covid deaths in Africa simply not counted?
Most global Covid trackers register no cases in Sierra Leone because testing for the virus here is effectively nonexistent. With no testing, there are no cases to report. A research project at Njala University in Sierra Leone has found that 78 percent of people have antibodies for this coronavirus. Yet Sierra Leone has reported only 125 Covid deaths since the start of the pandemic.
Most people die in their homes, not in hospitals, either because they can’t reach a medical facility or because their families take them home to die. Many deaths are never registered with civil authorities.
This pattern is common across sub-Saharan Africa. A recent survey by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa found that official registration systems captured only one in three deaths.
The one sub-Saharan country where almost every death is counted is South Africa. And it’s clear from the data that Covid has killed a great many people in that country, far more than the reported virus deaths. Excess mortality data show that between May 2020 and September 2021, some 250,000 more people died from natural causes than was predicted for that time period, based on the pattern in previous years. Surges in death rates match those in Covid cases, suggesting the virus was the culprit.
Dr. Lawrence Mwananyanda, a Boston University epidemiologist and special adviser to the president of Zambia, said he had no doubt that the impact in Zambia had been just as severe as in South Africa, but that Zambian deaths simply had not been captured by a much weaker registration system. Zambia, a country of more than 18 million people, has reported 4,000 Covid-19 deaths.
“If that is happening in South Africa, why should it be different here?” he said. In fact, he added, South Africa has a much stronger health system, which ought to mean a lower death rate, rather than a higher one.
A research team he led found that during Zambia’s Delta wave, 87 percent of bodies in hospital morgues were infected with Covid. “The morgue was full. Nothing else is different — what is different is that we just have very poor data.”
The Economist, which has been tracking excess deaths throughout the pandemic, shows similar rates of death across Africa. Sondre Solstad, who runs the Africa model, said that there had been between one million and 2.9 million excess deaths on the continent during the pandemic.
“It would be beautiful if Africans were spared, but they aren’t,” he said.
But many scientists tracking the pandemic on the ground disagree. It’s not possible that hundreds of thousands or even millions of Covid deaths could have gone unnoticed, they say.
“We have not seen massive burials in Africa. If that had happened, we’d have seen it,” said Dr. Thierno Baldé, who runs the W.H.O.’s Covid emergency response in Africa.
“A death in Africa never goes unrecorded, as much as we are poor at record-keeping,” said Dr. Abdhalah Ziraba, an epidemiologist at the African Population and Health Research Center in Nairobi, Kenya. “There is a funeral, an announcement: A burial is never done within a week because it is a big event. For someone sitting in New York hypothesizing that they were unrecorded — well, we may not have the accurate numbers, but the perception is palpable. In the media, in your social circle, you know if there are deaths.”
Dr. Demby, the Sierra Leone health minister, who is an epidemiologist by training, agreed. “We haven’t had overflowing hospitals. We haven’t,” he said. “There is no evidence that excess deaths are occurring.”
Which could be keeping the death rate lower?
While health surveillance is weak, he acknowledged, Sierra Leoneans have the recent, terrible experience of Ebola, which killed 4,000 people here in 2014-16. Since then, he said, citizens have been on alert for an infectious agent that could be killing people in their communities. They would not continue to pack into events if that were the case, he said.
Dr. Salim Abdool Karim, who is on the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Covid task force and who was part of the research team tracking excess deaths in South Africa, believes the death toll continentwide is probably consistent with that of his country. There is simply no reason that Gambians or Ethiopians would be less vulnerable to Covid than South Africans, he said.
But he also said it was clear that large numbers of people were not turning up in the hospital with respiratory distress. The young population is clearly a key factor, he said, while some older people who die of strokes and other Covid-induced causes are not being identified as coronavirus deaths. Many are not making it to the hospital at all, and their deaths are not registered. But others are not falling ill at rates seen elsewhere, and that’s a mystery that needs unraveling.
“It’s hugely relevant to things as basic as vaccine development and treatment,” said Dr. Prabhat Jha, who heads the Centre for Global Health Research in Toronto and is leading work to analyze causes of death in Sierra Leone.
Researchers working with Dr. Jha are using novel methods — such as looking for any increase in revenue from obituaries at radio stations in Sierra Leonean towns over the past two years — to try to see if deaths could have risen unnoticed, but he said it was clear there had been no tide of desperately sick people.
Some organizations working on the Covid vaccination effort say the lower rates of illness and death should be driving a rethinking of policy. John Johnson, vaccination adviser for Doctors Without Borders, said that vaccinating 70 percent of Africans made sense a year ago when it seemed like vaccines might provide long-term immunity and make it possible to end Covid-19 transmission. But now that it’s clear that protection wanes, collective immunity no longer looks achievable. And so an immunization strategy that focuses on protecting just the most vulnerable would arguably be a better use of resources in a place such as Sierra Leone.
“Is this the most important thing to try to carry out in countries where there are much bigger problems with malaria, with polio, with measles, with cholera, with meningitis, with malnutrition? Is this what we want to spend our resources on in those countries?” he asked. “Because at this point, it’s not for those people: It’s to try to prevent new variants.”
And new variants of Covid pose the greatest risk in places with older populations and high levels of comorbidities such as obesity, he said.
Other experts cautioned that the virus remained an unpredictable foe and that scaling back efforts to vaccinate sub-Saharan Africans could yet lead to tragedy.
“We can’t get complacent and assume Africa can’t go the way of India,” Dr. Jha said.
A new variant as infectious as Omicron but more lethal than Delta could yet emerge, he warned, leaving Africans vulnerable unless vaccination rates increased significantly.
“We should really avoid the hubris that all Africa is safe,” he said.
A deadly weekend was an ominous harbinger for the summer months ahead, which is typically America’s most violent time.
By Tim Arango and Troy Closson, March 23, 2022
Hayden Kiger, 27, shows a customer a rifle at McBride’s Gun Store in Austin, Texas. Supporters of new laws allowing people to carry a gun without a permit argue that it allows citizens to defend themselves at a time of rising gun violence. Credit...Matthew Busch for The New York Times
On Friday night in Louisiana, a seven-month-old baby was shot in the head, caught in the crossfire during a drive-by shooting. In Norfolk, Va., an argument early Saturday over a spilled drink escalated into gunfire outside a pizzeria, killing two people, including a young reporter for the local newspaper.
Later that same day in the Arkansas farming town of Dumas, an annual car show and community event to promote nonviolence became a bloody crime scene after a gunfight broke out, killing one and injuring more than two dozen people, including several children.
And in Miami Beach, where spring break revelers have descended, officials this week declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew after a pair of weekend shootings.
All told, in a single weekend when the calendar turned to spring, there were at least nine mass shooting events — defined by at least four people shot — across the country, as well as many more with fewer victims. It was an ominous harbinger for the warmer summer months ahead, which is typically America’s most violent time.
“We can’t endure this anymore, we just simply can’t,” said Dan Gelber, the mayor of Miami Beach, in announcing the curfew. “This isn’t your father’s, your mother’s spring break. This is something totally different.”
The surge in gun violence in the United States that began in 2020 as the pandemic set in and continued through a summer of unrest following the murder of George Floyd, shows no sign of easing. Homicides were up 30 percent that year, the largest annual recorded increase.
While in most places gun violence has not reached the record levels of the 1990s, and other types of crime have remained low during the pandemic, the continued drumbeat of shootings has forced officials like those in Miami Beach to take extraordinary measures at a time when gun ownership has soared, and as some states have moved to pass laws to allow easier access to firearms.
“When picnics and outside events like this car show, when all that happens that’s a kickoff” to a period of violence, said Mark Bryant, the founder of the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit organization that collects data on shootings. “And I’m just afraid the kickoff was this weekend.”
James Densley, a professor of criminal justice at Metro State University in Minnesota and co-founder of the Violence Project, which researches mass shootings, said the types of shootings that occurred over the weekend in public spaces, like the one at the car show in Arkansas, grab people’s attention because they took the lives of innocent bystanders. But, he said, they obscure the fact that the majority of the gun violence that plagues America doesn’t affect strangers. It’s more likely to be the settling of personal grudges or tit-for-tat gang shootings that have surged in cities like Los Angeles.
In New York City, many neighborhoods where shootings have long been part of the fabric of daily life — largely lower-income with predominantly Black and Latino residents — bear the brunt of the pandemic’s sustained spike in gun violence. Last weekend, 29 people were shot, including two patrons at a bar in Queens; a man on a subway platform in Brooklyn; and a Jamaican immigrant, who was killed after an argument in the Bronx.
Mayor Eric Adams, who took office at the start of the year after campaigning on a message of public safety, has focused on the prevalence of firearms on city streets, attempting to curtail their spread through legislative and policing changes. He has repeatedly asked the courts and state lawmakers to treat weapon offenses with harsher penalties, calling for decreasing the minimum age that someone can be charged as an adult in certain situations and for revising the state’s 2020 bail reform laws.
“I say this over and over again,” Mr. Adams said at a news conference on Monday, “we need help from Washington, we need help on the state level. We need help. But with or without that help, we’re going to make our city a safe city.”
Mr. Adams, a former police captain, also played a crucial role in the reinstatement of a specialized N.Y.P.D. unit that focuses on gun arrests, which was disbanded in 2020, amid citywide protests following the murder of Mr. Floyd. Officers in the unit last week began to patrol about 25 areas of the city to recover weapons where shootings are particularly high.
Around the country, gun purchases, which surged in 2020, have begun to level off, at least when measured by the number of federal background checks, a proximate measure of Americans’ gun-buying habits. After setting records during the pandemic — in a single week in March of 2021 the F.B.I. reported more than 1.2 million background checks, the highest ever — figures have largely returned to prepandemic levels.
Still, researchers estimate that there are at least 15 million more guns in circulation in the country than there would have been had there not been such a large increase in purchasing during the pandemic.
Garen J. Wintemute, who researches gun violence at the University of California, Davis, said that while he was pleased to see the apparent reversal in the surge of gun purchases, “we have no choice but to live through the aftermath, whatever it is going to be. We’re doing that now.”
Criminologists and researchers say no single cause explains the rise in gun violence, but they point to a confluence of traumatic events, from the economic and social disruptions of the pandemic to the unrest of 2020, as well as the accompanying surge in gun ownership.
Dr. Wintemute said he worries that Americans increasingly see those they disagree with as the enemy.
“We have lowered the bar, the threshold of insult or affront or whatever, that’s necessary for violence to seem legitimate,” he said.
The rise in shootings comes as some Republican lawmakers in red states move to pass more permissive gun laws.
On Monday, Eric Holcomb, the Republican governor of Indiana, signed a bill that will allow people to carry handguns without first securing a permit. Earlier this year, Ohio and Alabama also passed so-called “constitutional carry” laws. Last year, five other states — Iowa, Texas, Utah, Tennessee and Montana — approved similar laws.
Supporters of the new laws have framed them as necessary to allow citizens to defend themselves at a time of rising gun violence, and when there is at least the perception that police in some communities have been less visible following the protests of 2020.
“We are at a time right now when police feel handcuffed, citizens don’t know where they can turn for help and this just gives us a fighting chance,” Rob Sexton, the legislative affairs director for the Buckeye Firearms Association, which lobbied for the new law in Ohio, recently told the Statehouse News Bureau.
Still, some in law enforcement object to the new laws, arguing that they will put officers at risk.
At the federal level, promises to spend billions on community violence prevention programs — like groups led by former gang members working in hospitals and in the streets to reduce gun crime — have so far gone unfulfilled, as the centerpiece of President Biden’s domestic agenda, the Build Back Better bill, has stalled.
“It’s going to be a real shame if that funding doesn’t come through,” Dr. Wintemute said. “We’re going to be heading into a summer where we still have the pandemic — sorry, we still will — there will be war in the background, in Ukraine and maybe other places too by then. It’s a federal election year, and it’s going to be very hot.”
On Sunday morning in Dumas, Ark., the parking lot of Fred’s Store, wedged between a McDonald’s and a butcher shop, was stained with blood, while police were still searching for suspects in Saturday night’s shooting.
“Kids were enjoying themselves, people were enjoying themselves,” said Amber Brown-Madison, a local politician who attended the annual event, which had been canceled for two years because of the pandemic, with her children and her sister.“After we heard about two or three shots, I immediately grabbed my sister and my children. We just hit the ground. That’s all we could do. I couldn’t say anything but, ‘Jesus.’”
Rob Moritz contributed reporting from Dumas, Ark.
By Rod Buntzen, March 27, 2022
Mr. Buntzen is the author of “My Armageddon Experience: A Nuclear Weapons Test Memoir.”
In the early days of his war against Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin told the world that he had ordered his nation’s nuclear forces to a higher state of readiness. Ever since, pundits, generals and politicians have speculated about what would happen if the Russian military used a nuclear weapon.
What would NATO do? Should the United States respond with its own nuclear weapons?
These speculations all sound hollow to me. Unconvincing words without feeling.
In 1958, as a young scientist for the U.S. Navy, I witnessed the detonation of an 8.9-megaton thermonuclear weapon as it sat on a barge in Eniwetok Atoll, in the Marshall Islands. I watched from across the lagoon at the beach on Parry Island, where my group prepared instrumentation to measure the atmospheric radiation. Sixty-three years later, what I saw remains etched in my mind, which is why I’m so alarmed that the use of nuclear weapons can be discussed so cavalierly in 2022.
Although the potential horror of nuclear weapons remains frozen in films from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the public today has little understanding of the stakes of the Cold War and what might be expected now if the war in Ukraine intentionally or accidentally spins out of control.
The test I witnessed, code-named Oak, was part of a larger series called Hardtack I, which included 35 nuclear detonations over several months in 1958. With world concern about atmospheric testing mounting, the military was eager to test as many different types of weapons as it could before any atmospheric moratorium was announced. The hydrogen bomb used in the Oak test was detonated at 7:30 a.m. A second bomb was set off at noon on nearby Bikini Atoll.
In a nuclear detonation, the thermal and shock effects are the most immediate and are unimaginable. The fission-fusion process that occurs in a thermonuclear explosion happens in a millionth of a second.
As I watched from 20 miles away, all the materials in the bomb, barge and surrounding lagoon water and air, out to a radius of several feet, had been vaporized and raised to a temperature of tens of million degrees.
As the X-rays and neutrons from the bomb raced outward, they left the heavier material particles behind, creating a radiation front that was absorbed by the surrounding air. The radiation, absorption, reradiation and expansion processes continued, cooling the bomb mass within milliseconds.
The outer high-pressure shock region cooled and lost its opacity as it raced toward me, and a hotter inner fireball again appeared.
This point in the process is called breakaway, occurring about three seconds after detonation, when the fireball radius was already nearly 5,500 feet.
By now, the fireball had begun to rise, engulfing more and more atmosphere and sweeping up coral and more lagoon water into an enormous column. The ball of fire eventually reached a radius of 1.65 miles.
Time seemed to have stopped. I had lost my count of the seconds.
The heat was becoming unbearable. Bare spots at my ankles were starting to hurt. The aluminum foil hood I had fashioned for protection was beginning to fail.
I thought that the hair on the back of my head might catch on fire.
The brightness of light the detonation created defies description. I worried that my high-density goggles would fail.
Keeping my eyes closed, I turned until I could see the edge of the fireball.
As I again turned away from the fireball, I opened my eyes inside the goggles and saw outlines of the trees and objects nearby.
The visible light penetrating my goggles increased, and the heat on my back grew more intense. I squirmed to distribute the heat from my side to my back.
About 30 or 40 seconds after detonation, I took off the goggles and watched the angry violet-red and brown cloud from the fireball.
As the rising cloud started to form a mushroom cap, I waited for the shock wave to arrive. In the distance, I could see a long vertical shadow approaching. I instinctively opened my mouth and moved my jaw side to side to equalize pressure difference across my eardrums, closed my eyes and put my hands over my ears.
It hit me like a full body slap, knocking me back. I opened my eyes to see another shadow approaching from a slightly different direction. Over the next few seconds, I felt several smaller blows created by reflections of the pressure wave off distant islands.
The fireball kept expanding and climbing at over 200 miles per hour, reaching an altitude of about 2 miles. The boiling mass 20 miles away turned into a mixture of white and gray vapor and continued its climb until it reached somewhere about 100,000 feet.
Meanwhile, the lagoon water had receded like a curtain being pulled back, and the sea bottom slowly appeared. Shark netting that usually protected swimmers lay on the bottom.
Finally, the water stopped receding and appeared to form a wall, like pictures of Moses parting the sea. The wall seemed to remain motionless before finally roaring back.
The water receded for a second time, then repeatedly in smaller and smaller waves and finally as minuscule oscillations across the lagoon surface that lasted all day.
Mankind conducted more than 500 nuclear tests in the atmosphere before moving operations underground, where we tested 1,500 more. Tests to verify the design of weapons. Tests to measure the impact of radiation on people. Tests to make political statements.
During my early Navy career, I focused on scenarios involving nuclear exchanges that could have killed tens of millions of people — what was known during the Cold War as mutually assured destruction.
But the end of the Cold War didn’t bring an end to these fearsome weapons.
Just a few months ago, in January, Russia, China, France, Britain and the United States issued a joint statement affirming that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.
“We underline our desire to work with all states to create a security environment more conducive to progress on disarmament with the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons with undiminished security for all,” the statement read.
If nuclear weapons are used in Ukraine, the biggest worry is that the conflict could spin quickly out of control. In a strategic war with Russia, hundreds of detonations like the one I witnessed could blanket our countries.
Having witnessed one thermonuclear explosion, I hope that no humans ever have to witness another.
By Jaeah Lee, March 30, 2022
Ms. Lee is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and a 2021-22 Knight-Wallace reporting fellow.
Tommy Munsdwell Canady was in middle school when he wrote his first rap lyrics. He started out freestyling for friends and family, and after two of his cousins were fatally shot, he found solace in making music. “Before I knew it my pain started influencing all my songs,” he told me in a letter. By his 15th birthday, Mr. Canady was recording and sharing his music online. His tracks had a homemade sound: a pulsing beat mixed with vocals, the words hard to make out through ambient static. That summer, in 2014, Mr. Canady released a song on SoundCloud, “I’m Out Here,” that would change his life.
In Racine, Wis., where Mr. Canady lived, the police had been searching for suspects in three recent shootings. One of the victims, Semar McClain, 19, had been found dead in an alley with a bullet in his temple, his pocket turned out, a cross in one hand and a gold necklace with a pendant of Jesus’ face by his side. The crime scene investigation turned up no fingerprints, weapons or eyewitnesses. Then, in early August, Mr. McClain’s stepfather contacted the police about a song he’d heard on SoundCloud that he believed mentioned Mr. McClain’s name and referred to his murder.
On Aug. 6, 2014, about a week after Mr. Canady released “I’m Out Here,” a SWAT team stormed his home with a “no knock” search warrant. Lennie Farrington, Mr. Canady’s great-grandmother and legal guardian, was up early washing her clothes in the kitchen sink when the police broke through her front door. Mr. Canady was asleep. “They rushed in my room with assault rifles telling me to put my hands up,” he recalled. “I was in the mind state of, This is a big misunderstanding.” He was charged with first-degree intentional homicide and armed robbery.
Prosecutors offered Mr. Canady a plea deal, but he refused, insisting he was innocent. “Honestly, I’m not accepting that,” he told the judge. He decided to go to trial.
I have been reporting on the use of rap lyrics in criminal investigations and trials for more than two years, building a database of cases like Mr. Canady’s in partnership with the University of Georgia and Type Investigations. We have found that over the past three decades, rap — in the form of lyrics, music videos and album images — has been introduced as evidence by prosecutors in hundreds of cases, from homicide to drug possession to gang charges. Rap songs are sometimes used to argue that defendants are guilty even when there’s little other evidence linking them to the crime. What these cases reveal is a serious if lesser-known problem in the courts: how the rules of evidence contribute to racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Federal and state courts have rules requiring that all evidence — every crime scene photo, DNA sample, witness testimony — be deemed reliable and relevant to the crime at hand before it is shown to a jury. The strength of these rules, however, ultimately rests on the discretion of judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys. Each side makes its case as to how the rules should apply to a particular piece of evidence; the judge makes the final call. Cases like Mr. Canady’s can hinge on interpretation — whether a police officer, prosecutor, judge or jury sees the lyrics as creative expression or proof of a criminal act.
Courts typically treat music and literature as artistic works protected under the First Amendment, even when they contain profane or gruesome material. The small number of non-rap examples that I found — only four since 1950 — involved defendants whose fiction writing or lyrics were considered to be evidence of assault or violent threats. Three of those cases were thrown out; one ended in a conviction that was overturned.
Research has shown that rap is far more likely to be presented in court and interpreted literally than other genres of music. A 2016 study by criminologists at the University of California, Irvine, asked two groups of participants to read the same set of violent lyrics. One group was told the lyrics came from a country song, while the other was told they came from rap. Participants rated whether they found the lyrics offensive and whether they thought the lyrics were fictional or based on the writer’s experience. They judged the lyrics to be more offensive and true to life when told they were rap.
“The findings suggest,” the authors wrote, “that judges might underappreciate the extent to which the label of lyrics — and not the substantive lyrics themselves — impact jurors’ decisions.” Simply describing music as rap, they concluded, is enough to “induce negative evaluations.”
The Irvine findings mirrored those of a study conducted by Stuart Fischoff, a psychology professor at California State University, Los Angeles, almost 20 years earlier. Dr. Fischoff presented 134 students with one of four scenarios about a young man and asked them to rate their impressions of him across nine personality traits, including “caring-uncaring,” “gentle-rough” and “capable of murder-not capable of murder.”
The first scenario described “an 18-year-old African American male high school senior,” a track “champion” with “a good academic record” who made “extra money by singing at local parties.” The second scenario described the same person but added one detail: “He is on trial accused of murdering a former girlfriend who was still in love with him, but has repeatedly declared that he is innocent of the charges.” The third scenario did not mention the murder but instead asked the participant to read a set of rap lyrics by the young man. The fourth mentioned both the murder and the lyrics.
Dr. Fischoff found that the participants who read only about the lyrics reacted more negatively to the young man than the group who had read only about the alleged murder. “Clearly,” he wrote, “participants were more put off by the rap lyrics than by the murder charges.”
At Mr. Canady’s trial in 2016, prosecutors presented evidence that was largely circumstantial. A firearms examiner testified that one of two guns the police found in Ms. Farrington’s apartment, an unloaded .38-caliber revolver, matched the type that the police believed killed Mr. McClain, but conceded there was no way to be certain it was the same gun. Mr. McClain’s cousin testified that he had seen the victim carrying a gun he described as a “black .380,” which prosecutors proposed was similar to the other gun — a loaded pistol — found in Mr. Canady’s home. The government’s theory was that Mr. Canady had killed Mr. McClain and stolen his gun.
But no witness or physical evidence placed Mr. Canady at the crime scene. Mr. McClain’s cousin said that he saw the victim argue with a young man on the day of the murder. He noted that Mr. Canady was one of several people present but not part of the argument. (Mr. Canady told me that he knew Mr. McClain from the neighborhood and that they had friends in common.) A witness who had told the police that he heard Mr. McClain and Mr. Canady discussing guns denied it on the stand.
That’s where the lyrics came in. On the final day of testimony, prosecutors played “I’m Out Here” twice for the jury, first at full speed and then slowed down. A police investigator, Chad Stillman, testified that he heard Mr. Canady say “catch Semar slipping” and other lyrics that he believed alluded to the murder, including references to an alley and bullets hitting a head. Mr. Stillman also read aloud four excerpts from lyrics that Mr. Canady wrote while in jail awaiting trial — a cellmate had turned them over to officers — and interpreted their connections to the crime. “It’s consistently about shooting people,” he said. The lines “blood on my sneaks that’s from his head leaking” and “his last day i took that, im riding around with 2 straps,” Mr. Stillman asserted, referred to Mr. McClain’s head wound and the two guns found in Mr. Canady’s home.
Mr. Canady tried to tell his attorney that the investigators had misheard his song, that an isolated vocal track on his computer would prove he did not name the victim. Where investigators heard “catch Semar slipping,” he said, the actual lyrics were “catch a mawg slippin’,” a slang reference to “someone on the opposite side” and a phrase that he had used in at least one other song.
During cross-examination, the defense attorney pointed out that several of the lyrics Mr. Stillman mentioned did not match the facts of the murder, including the reference to blood on sneakers, “a big Glock with 50 in it,” and an “opp car” — meaning a car belonging to a rival. (The court would later acknowledge that there were, in each of the four exhibits, “other lyrics that do not bear a resemblance to this crime.” One excerpt even ended with a critique of gun violence, in which Mr. Canady condemns all the “killing for no reason” that surrounded him.)
Asked whether he was familiar with rap composition — that boasting and violent imagery are conventions of the genre — Mr. Stillman replied, “Vaguely,” and admitted that he wasn’t sure whether rappers told the truth in their lyrics or not. “I don’t know those artists, you know, what they’ve been through,” he testified. “I know a lot of rappers come from really shady pasts where they’ve committed a large amount of crimes, and they like to brag about those crimes through their lyrics.” (Mr. Stillman, who no longer works for the department, did not reply to a request for an interview.)
Prosecutors relied heavily on the songs in their closing argument. “I think it’s best described as really a tale of two Tommy Canadys,” an assistant district attorney told the jury. “The defendant described it best in his own words,” he added, when Mr. Canady said, “‘I’m handsome and wealthy, with a monster in me.’”
During their deliberation, jurors asked to listen to “I’m Out Here” two more times. After an hour and a half, they found Mr. Canady guilty on both counts. In March 2017, just before his 18th birthday, Mr. Canady was sentenced to life in prison, with the possibility of parole after 50 years.
The rules of evidence are supposed to prohibit the presentation of “character evidence” — information that simply impugns a defendant or reveals past wrongs — to avoid biasing jurors. The use of rap lyrics in Mr. Canady’s case was an example of what legal scholars sometimes call racialized character evidence: details or personal traits prosecutors can use in an insidious way, playing up racial stereotypes to imply guilt. The resulting message, as a Boston University law professor, Jasmine Gonzales Rose, told me, is that the defendant is “that type of Black person.”
“There’s always this bias,” said Andrea Dennis, a University of Georgia law professor who has been studying the use of rap in criminal cases since the early 2000s, “that this young Black man, if they’re rapping, they must only be saying what’s autobiographical and true, because they can’t possibly be creative.” In 2016, Professor Dennis teamed up with Erik Nielson, a University of Richmond professor who studies African American literature, to compile a list of trials in which rap lyrics had been used as evidence. They found roughly 500 defendants, whose cases they discuss in their 2019 book, “Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America.”
I worked with Professor Dennis to track down court documents for more than 200 of those defendants, including their race, how lyrics were used against them and the outcomes of their cases. We found more trials involving rap lyrics in the past decade than during the heyday of the war on crime in the 1990s, which suggests that the practice has become more prevalent despite a broader awareness of racial disparities in the courts and the need for reform. We identified about 50 defendants who were prosecuted using rap between 1990 and 2005, but we found more than double that number in the 15 years that followed.
It’s difficult to pinpoint a single driving force behind this trend. As some scholars have pointed out, the rise of social media, online music platforms and the popularity of rap means that the police and prosecutors have easier access to lyrics and videos. Over the years, courts that have weighed in on the matter of rap evidence have overwhelmingly ruled in favor of admitting and interpreting them literally. Of the cases where court or correctional documents specified the defendant’s race and gender, roughly three-quarters of the defendants were African American men. (Professors Dennis and Nielson note that in some states, such as California, the defendants they identified are predominantly Latino.)
While rap was rarely the only evidence presented in a case, it often played a key role in a prosecutor’s line of argument. Some used snippets of written lyrics or a recording to indicate a confession or articulate a motive. One prosecutor in California argued that lyrics from a notebook found during a search of the defendant’s home showed his intent to murder: Three round bursting real military weaponry / Leaving cold cases for eternity. Others used music videos to show that a defendant had access to a weapon similar to one found at a crime scene or that multiple defendants were in a gang. We found that courts often acknowledged that rap lyrics were prejudicial but still admitted them, concluding that their probative value was greater.
That’s what happened in Mr. Canady’s case. Before his trial, Judge Emily Mueller held a hearing to decide whether to admit several sets of lyrics Mr. Canady wrote while awaiting trial. Judge Mueller acknowledged that introducing rap lyrics to a jury unfamiliar with the genre might cause them to “think this must be some bad guy.” She considered each line in turn. Ambulance come and pick him up aint no face on em / Police come and pick me up aint got shit on me. “It does refer to the face, which I think can refer to a head shot,” she said. “The ambulance coming to pick up the person, and then police coming to pick up the writer. ‘Aint got shit on me,’ which I assume means they don’t have any evidence.” She decided to allow the lyrics because they constituted a sufficient “nexus” to the crime — an idea that’s appeared in numerous rap cases and has been criticized by some for being a meaningless standard. “While I am cognizant of the prejudice,” Judge Mueller concluded, “I don’t believe that it is undue prejudice here.” (Judge Mueller declined a request for an interview.)
Deborah Gonzalez, the district attorney who covers Athens-Clarke County in Georgia, said rap lyrics present a conundrum for prosecutors whose job is to prove guilt. She cautions those in her office against relying on rap lyrics without context or other convincing evidence, but she also sees how they could be valuable. “We’re in this Catch-22,” she said, describing trying to decide whether something was a threat or creative expression. “That’s where it sometimes gets a little iffy out there, when you can’t say that it’s 100 percent one or the other.”
Prosecutors also used rap to justify harsher sentences. In sentencing hearings, information that is off-limits during a trial, like character evidence or prior crimes, is fair game. Of the cases we reviewed, a majority of defendants went on to serve sentences of 10 years or longer; roughly a quarter received life sentences, and at least 17 people received death sentences, including Nathaniel Woods, a Black man in Alabama who was convicted of serving as an accomplice to the murder of three police officers. Mr. Woods maintained his innocence; another man, Kerry Spencer, confessed to the murder and was convicted in a separate trial. When Mr. Woods appealed his verdict, however, prosecutors countered by presenting evidence that included lyrics he was alleged to have written while in jail awaiting trial: Seven execution-style murders / I have no remorse because I’m the fucking murderer. / Haven’t you ever heard of a killa / I drop pigs like Kerry Spencer. Mr. Woods was executed in 2020. He had adapted the lyrics from a Dr. Dre song.
Evidence rules not only fail to curtail racial bias in the courts; they also enable it to thrive in plain sight. That’s why a growing number of scholars, lawyers and legislators are calling for rethinking the rules themselves. Take Federal Rule 403, which gives judges the power to exclude relevant evidence if it has a much higher risk of creating unfair prejudice or confusion, or misleading a jury. What if that rule required judges to first assess whether the burden of proof could be met without evidence like rap lyrics? Prosecutors are already asking this question in Athens-Clarke County, Ga., where Ms. Gonzalez, the district attorney, has studied Professors Dennis and Nielson’s work.
Or what if the rules simply barred rap lyrics in the first place? That’s what two New York state senators, Brad Hoylman and Jamaal Bailey, hope to achieve in a bill they introduced last fall. If passed, it would be the first to prohibit prosecutors from using rap lyrics or other creative expression as criminal evidence “without clear and convincing proof that there is a literal, factual nexus.” The bill, which has garnered support from musicians including Jay-Z, Meek Mill and Kelly Rowland, was approved in committee in January and awaits a full vote.
In 2019, two years into his sentence at the Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage, Wis., Mr. Canady asked the court to grant him a new trial. His lawyer, Jefren Olsen, argued in a brief that Mr. Canady’s trial attorney had demonstrated ineffective counsel by failing to obtain the original recordings of “I’m Out Here” and that the judge should not have admitted the written rap lyrics in the first place.
“The parties argued a great deal” about “whether Canady’s lyrics as a whole constitute posturing and braggadocio or a representation of who he is and what he does,” Mr. Olsen wrote. The overall effect was to convince the jury of “Canady’s general bad character” without necessarily proving “his specific conduct in this case.” In July 2020, Mr. Canady finally obtained the original song mix and the isolated vocal track that he believed would give him the chance to prove his innocence.
Getting a new trial, however, requires clearing a high bar. Defendants must typically prove that the original lawyers or judge committed a serious error, and they must make a convincing case that without the error, the jury would have been likely to reach a different verdict. Arguments having to do with the interpretation of evidence do not often meet that threshold. Only Mr. Canady knows whether he is innocent. But the rest of us must ask ourselves what we’re asking jurors to judge, what we’re ultimately putting on trial, when the evidence is rap.
In May 2021, the judge who presided over Mr. Canady’s trial denied his request for a new one. (In Wisconsin, the circuit court oversees both the trial phase and the first appeal following a conviction.) Mr. Canady has since challenged the decision in the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. In a new brief, his attorney, Mr. Olsen, argues for a stricter relevance standard to be applied when the evidence in question is rap lyrics. If the appeal is successful, it could set a new precedent in the state.
Meanwhile, Mr. Canady continues to write in prison. “Music is the only way I know how to vent,” he told me. “I pour my heart out, and let my soul do the singing.”
By Charles M. Blow, March 30, 2022https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/30/opinion/lynching-emmett-till.html
On a warm August night in 1955 on the outskirts of Money, Miss., about a hundred miles due north of Jackson, two men arrived with a flashlight and a gun at the house where Emmett Till was staying with his aunt and uncle.
Till was just 14 years old. He was visiting from Chicago. He had been accused of whistling at, flirting with or touching a white woman.
It was 2 o’clock on a Sunday morning. The men barged into the house, entered the room where Till slept, shined the flashlight in his face and asked, “You the niggah that did the talking down at Money?”
They forced the boy to get dressed, put him in a car and rode off with him, this over the pleadings of his uncle and aunt. One of the men asked the uncle how old he was. “Sixty-four,” the uncle answered. “Well,” the man responded, “if you know any of us here tonight, then you will never live to get to be 65.”
After hours of driving and just before daybreak, the men took Till to a tool shed and began to pistol-whip him. But, as one of the men would tell Look magazine the next year, Till was still defiant, yelling at one point: “You bastards, I’m not afraid of you. I’m as good as you are. I’ve ‘had’ white women. My grandmother was a white woman.”
(It is important to remember that these men are killers, and their word is suspect. The confession, and what it projects onto the Black boy they killed, must be viewed with caution and in context.)
The man told the magazine that he liked Black people (he used a slur, of course), as long as they were “in their place.” And as long as he lived and could, he said, he was going to keep them in their place. So when he heard Till “throw that poison at me” about white women, “I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you — just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.’”
They forced the boy back in the car and drove him to a cotton ginning factory in another town. The sun had risen by the time they arrived. They stole the fan of a cotton gin, loaded it in the car and drove away.
They parked at a spot near the Tallahatchie River. They forced the boy to remove the heavy cotton gin fan from the car and to strip naked. They then shot him in the right side of his face, near his ear.
The boy dropped to the ground. The men tied his body with barbed wire to the cotton gin fan and pushed it into the river.
Three days later, Till’s body — bloated and disfigured — was fished out of the river several miles downstream.
Local authorities sent the boy’s body back to his mother, Mamie Till, in Chicago in a coffin that was nailed shut. She demanded that it be opened. The body reeked because it had already started to decompose. As his mother later recounted viewing the body for the first time:
“I saw that his tongue was choked out. I noticed that the right eye was lying on midway his cheek, I noticed that his nose had been broken like somebody took a meat chopper and chopped his nose in several places. As I kept looking, I saw a hole, which I presumed was a bullet hole and I could look through that hole and see daylight on the other side.”
Emmett Till had been lynched, without question, but there had been no mob that did the deed and there had been no hanging. There was a beating and shooting and heinous disposal of the body.
Both men were acquitted of murder, by the way.
Lynching was never only about hanging. It was about a motive and means of injury and death, and lynchings have always needed specific legislation to make them punishable. Finally, on Tuesday, after 100 years of failed efforts on the part of liberal legislators to get such provisions written into law, President Biden signed the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act, which makes lynching a federal hate crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
The wording of the bill doesn’t specify hanging, but instead defines a lynching as a hate crime that results in death or serious bodily injury.
Still, some Americans continue to demonstrate a fundamental ignorance about lynching. Take Fox News’s Jesse Watters, who asked why a hate crimes bill is a priority now, saying, “nobody has been lynched in America in decades.” This is patently false.
Ahmaud Arbery was lynched in 2020 when two men, joined by a third, chased him down while he was jogging, killed him in the street in broad daylight and stood over his body, not rendering aid, as he bled out.
You could also argue that George Floyd was lynched, a few months later, when officers held him down and Officer Derek Chauvin pressed the life out of him on a public street. In fact, I think that you could make a strong case that several high-profile police killings were in fact lynchings.
And who would debate that James Byrd Jr. was lynched in 1998 when three white men took him to the woods, beat him, urinated on him, tied his ankles to the back of their truck and dragged his body for three miles, the pavement sanding away at his flesh. An autopsy found that he most likely died only when he was decapitated by a culvert about halfway through the dragging.
I, too, wish that lynching was only an ugly feature of America’s past, but sadly that simply isn’t the case. Lynching is still a thing.
—Common Dreams, April 1, 2022
Amazon Labor Union members gather at a watch event as union election votes are counted in Brooklyn, New York on March 31, 2022. (Photo: Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)
Amazon workers in Staten Island, New York won their election Friday, April 1, 2022, to form the retail giant’s first-ever union in the United States, a landmark victory for the labor movement in the face of aggressive union-busting efforts from one of the world’s most powerful companies.
CNBC reported that “while the official vote tally hasn’t been announced, the union’s lead is large enough that remaining and contested ballots are unlikely to sway the outcome of the election.”
“The latest tally, according to a union organizer, is 2,350 in favor of joining and 1,912 opposed,” the outlet noted.
Bloomberg also reported the union’s victory.
“In my 25 years writing about labor, the unionization victory at the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island is by far the biggest, beating-the-odds David-versus-Goliath unionization win I’ve seen,” veteran reporter Steven Greenhouse wrote on Twitter as the vote count was completed.
The unionization drive was led by Amazon Labor Union (ALU), a worker-led group not affiliated with any established union. Christian Smalls, the president of ALU, was fired by Amazon in 2020 after he led a protest against the company’s poor workplace safety standards in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic.
“A fired Amazon worker took on Amazon’s union busters and unionized a 5,000-worker warehouse,” Greenhouse wrote.
By Binyamin Applebaum, April 1, 2022https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/01/opinion/amazon-workers-union.html
Andrea Renault/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Two years ago, Amazon fired Christian Smalls after he organized fellow workers at a warehouse on Staten Island to protest pandemic working conditions. On Friday, after a campaign the company bitterly opposed, the government announced that those workers had voted to unionize, and Mr. Smalls, their leader, popped open a bottle of champagne.
It was a heady moment for the union movement in the United States, a high-profile victory that follows recent votes to organize workers at several Starbucks.
“Do you see what’s happening out there?” the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s president, Elizabeth Shuler, asked the crowd this week at a labor convention in Pittsburgh. “Working people are rising up.”
But it is a false dawn. The number of American workers who are represented by unions drops with almost every passing year. It reached a new low last year. And it will not recover unless and until the federal government changes the rules of the game.
The new Amazon Labor Union — the first union for U.S. workers at Amazon, one of the nation’s largest employers — is remarkable, and worthy of celebration, precisely because it is so very difficult to unionize. Both federal protections and the enforcement of those protections are grossly inadequate.
President Biden has been more outspoken in his support for organized labor than any of his predecessors in the White House, but that is actually a sign of the weakness of the union movement, which no longer has the power to make a Democratic president uncomfortable.
The decline of unions is often narrated as a straightforward consequence of the decline of industrial employment. Fewer steelworkers, fewer United Steelworkers.
Another standard talking point is that the government supplanted unions as the primary protector of workers’ interests during the mid-20th century, writing into law many of the movement’s original goals, like putting a floor on wages and a ceiling on hours worked.
But federal oversight is an imperfect substitute for ensuring that workers can define and defend their own collective interests. Just this week, three Senate Democrats blocked the confirmation of David Weil to lead the Labor Department’s wage and hour division, which is supposed to protect workers. Mr. Weil held the same job under President Barack Obama and earned a reputation for trying to do it — for example, by seeking to prevent companies from improperly treating workers as contractors. Employers did not want an encore.
“I heard from a lot of business owners,” Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona, one of the three Democrats, told Politico by way of justification for his opposition.
Tellingly, the share of workers who would like to be in unions is much higher than the share of unionized workers. The government has cooperated with employers to frustrate that desire. Almost as soon as it had legalized collective bargaining in the 1930s, Congress began to backtrack, constraining American unions more tightly than unions in other democracies.
The government has gradually granted employers wide-ranging powers to frustrate unionization campaigns through propaganda, via threatened and actual mistreatment of workers and by closing operations if workers vote to unionize. To the extent that some tactics remain illegal, companies rarely suffer anything more than token penalties.
The House passed legislation last year, backed by Mr. Biden, that would address some of these abuses, but it died in the Senate. Bolder reforms, such as allowing workers in a given industry to negotiate wages and salaries collectively, rather than requiring individual contracts in each workplace, remain the stuff of campaign speeches.
The workers at JFK8, that Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, overcame the obstacles.
The campaign was fueled by anger about working conditions and a sense that they were not reaping a fair share of Amazon’s success. It also was personal. After Mr. Smalls was fired for raising concerns about workers’ safety during the early months of the Covid pandemic, a top Amazon executive described him as “not smart or articulate.” Some of his former colleagues figured that was roughly how the company felt about them, too.
During the unionization campaign, Amazon insisted that the police arrest Mr. Smalls and two current workers who brought food to the warehouse. Before the vote, the union projected the words “They arrested your co-workers” on one of the outside walls.
The circumstances were extraordinary, which is what it takes to win under the current rules. A parallel organizing campaign at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama mounted by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union appears headed for defeat.
The victory is still incomplete. The vote establishes the union as the official representative of the JFK8 workers. But companies often refuse to negotiate. An analysis of union votes in 2007 found that among the roughly 900 groups of workers who voted to engage in collective bargaining, fewer than half obtained a first contract within the following year. Three years later, almost a third still had not obtained that first contract.
Amazon said Friday that it might seek to have the vote thrown out. “We believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees,” it said. Its employees have reached a different conclusion, and not out of ignorance of the company’s case. They were required to sit through meetings where they were told what was good for them.
Union leaders have responded to the victory by announcing plans to press for votes at other Amazon warehouses. Mr. Smalls’s union has already secured a vote at another warehouse on Staten Island this month. As in the early 20th century, the union movement may well have no option but to win on a tilted field in order to have a fair chance.
The strike at an Alabama coal mine is one of the longest in U.S. history. To make ends meet, some striking miners have picked up work at an Amazon warehouse. It’s the same warehouse where workers are trying to unionize.
By Michael Corkery, April 2, 2022https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/02/business/alabama-coal-mine-strike-amazon.html
BROOKWOOD, Ala. — Braxton Wright is a second-generation coal miner, a die-hard union supporter and, until recently, a staunch Republican. He is named after his uncle, a Korean War veteran, who was fatally crushed between two rail cars while working at the Pullman train factory near Birmingham.
Hard dangerous work is a part of Mr. Wright’s extended family history and that of many people living in this industrial and mining belt of north central Alabama. Next to the coal mine where Mr. Wright works, there is a memorial to the miners who were killed in an underground explosion in September 2001. Every year, on the disaster’s anniversary, a bell tolls once for each of the 13 workers who died.
In agreeing to these dangers, Mr. Wright, 39, says he and his fellow coal miners have come to expect something in return from their employer — respect.
After accepting pay cuts when the coal company emerged from a 2015 bankruptcy, the miners said they expected that their previous wages would be restored to match what other mines paid. The company, Warrior Met Coal, declined to comment for this article. It says on its website that Warrior Met made no such promise and has provided multiple raises in recent years.
On April 1, 2021, Mr. Wright joined about 900 other miners who walked off the job and set up picket lines around the mine’s entrances, demanding that the company raise their wages close to the levels they received before the bankruptcy.
Less than 30 miles away from where the mine sits is the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., a building that encompasses 14 football fields and employs more than 6,000 people. The workers there have recently voted for a second time on whether to form a union.
A previous election last spring ended in a defeat for the union by a wide margin. The most recent results now hinge on a series of disputed ballots that will be reviewed in the coming weeks, but the contest is closer than many anticipated. On Friday, organized labor scored a surprising victory as workers at an Amazon facility on Staten Island voted to unionize.
It is a stark tableau of the American economy: coal miners dug into a contract dispute in a diminished industry and low-wage workers seeking more leverage at a high-tech company whose growth seems limitless.
Forming a union is a significant step, but maintaining a strike for 365 days requires a measure of solidarity that seems difficult to muster in a deeply divided society. The miners are a mix of Trump supporters and Biden voters, Black workers from Birmingham and white workers from rural towns near the mine. They have supported one another with food donations and camaraderie during a year on the picket line.
On most days, instead of getting up to start his shift as an operator in the mine’s control room, Mr. Wright heads to the picket line or to a food pantry and loads his pickup truck with donated groceries to bring to the miners and their families.
“Coal mining is like a brotherhood, like the military,” said Curtis Turner, president of Local 2427 of the United Mine Workers of America, which represents the maintenance workers at the mine. “They would do anything for each other.”
Still, the efficacy of the strike is not clear. Even as the mine operates at a reduced capacity, Warrior Met Coal is generating strong profits and its stock price has soared 125 percent since the strike began.
Even with the union’s support — the miners are paid $800 by the union every two weeks — many have had to get second jobs.
A few have taken jobs at Amazon in Bessemer, including Mr. Wright, who works the overnight shift, sorting items to be shipped around the South.
He knows that coal mining will always pay more because of the danger of the work. But when he encourages his new warehouse colleagues to vote for a union, he makes the case that a union could help new industries like e-commerce start to catch up.
At the mine, Mr. Wright is paid $84,000 a year, including overtime. If he stays at Amazon working full time, he would be on track to earn about $35,000 annually.
The miners view themselves as an inspiration to the Amazon workers, an example of what a union can offer in a fight over wages and working conditions. But as the strike enters its second year, there is no clear end in sight to the dispute. It is now one of the longest coal mine strikes in U.S. history, and it could wind up setting a different kind of example.
‘This strike is way larger than me’
The predawn sky turned to pink from black as a handful of miners huddled around a propane heater on the side of the road. Others held signs and talked quietly about the strike, which was entering its 336th day.
Just down the road, lights were blaring at the mine’s main entrance, as replacement workers showed up for their shifts.
Last year, the picket line was the site of heated altercations. The company accused union members of spitting on replacement workers, threatening a security guard with a baseball bat and smashing their car windows. Larry Spencer, a vice president in the miners’ union, said the replacement workers provoked the violence by swerving their cars into the picket line. A county judge issued an injunction severely limiting the union’s picket line activity.
Other accusations have surfaced as well. Last month, Warrior Met said there was an “explosive device attack” that damaged one of its natural gas pipelines. Federal law enforcement said it was investigating. In a statement, Warrior Met said the incident was “related to the ongoing labor dispute.”
The union says it was not involved in the reported attack and that many of the incidents at the mine entrances were provoked by replacement workers.
But the union — most of whose members wear camo T-shirts with the union label — is not shy about the message it sends to anyone crossing the picket line. “We are not a part of them anymore, and they are not a part of us anymore,” Mr. Spencer said.
Such militancy has helped hold the yearlong strike together. Only about 100 people have gone back to work, according to the union, whose secretary, Crystal Davis, keeps track of their names. “They made a promise, and they didn’t honor it,” she said.
The miners have long viewed themselves as standing apart from other industries because of the hardships they face 2,300 feet below ground.
“We are in the dust all the time, in the dark all the time,” said Tommy Turner, who makes about $24 an hour as a motorman driving a supply train through the mine. “If something happens,” he said, there is “only one way out.”
According to the company website Warrior Met Coal Facts, the average yearly income for workers has increased to $97,000 from $75,000 in 2016, making them among the top 10 percent of wage earners in Alabama.
“People who don’t know about the job probably say I make good money,” Mr. Turner said. “But I could walk around at Walmart and get $15 an hour for doing nothing.”
Mr. Turner, 55, is among multiple generations of Black members of coal unions, which were some of the earliest integrated organizations in the South. The union leaders have cast the strike as a struggle that transcends race and even coal.
They have tried to unite the miners around the notion that they are all being slighted by their employer, the local media and Alabama Republicans, who have been vocal supporters of the coal industry in the face of climate regulation but have not backed the striking miners. It is us versus many of them.
At a recent evening rally in the dirt parking lot of the union hall, all of the miners who are veterans or have relatives in the military were asked to come forward and hold up their hands.
Just about everyone — a white man with a buzz cut, a Black woman in medical scrubs, Mr. Turner, who served during the wars in Iraq — raised their arms toward the setting sun in a silent salute.
“The difference between us and the people who are keeping us out here, the people who don’t want to give us a fair contract, is what?” bellowed Cecil E. Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America.
“We are the patriots,” he said, answering his own question for the crowd. “We are the ones that gave them a right to be billionaires.”
After the rally, the miners lined up to pick up their strike checks and boxes of meat, yogurts and cakes from inside the union hall. The food had been “rescued” by a charity before it was thrown out by Walmart and other grocery stores.
Antwon McGhee, a 48-year-old miner, said he has come to depend on the groceries and donated diapers for his 2-year-old daughter.
“You have to swallow your pride and do what you have to do,” said Mr. McGhee, who was earning $88,000 a year before the strike.
Mr. McGhee found odd jobs, like picking up bodies from hospitals and taking them to a funeral home. He worked briefly at a nonunion auto manufacturing plant where one day he watched a worker urinate on herself because she couldn’t leave the assembly line.
“I feel like this strike is way larger than me,” he said.
From $31.30 to $22.50 an hour
Andre Mumford remembers how on Saturdays before the bankruptcy, the mine’s parking lot looked like a “car show” because there were so many nice new vehicles. Mr. Mumford would sometimes bring his Corvette before his day off on Sunday.
At the time, he was earning about $31.30 an hour as a motorman.
But when a pack of private equity firms including Apollo, Blackstone and KKR invested in the coal company in 2016, the mineworkers were told that they needed to accept concessions in their new contract. Mr. Mumford’s hourly wages were reduced to $22.50, though they came up closer to $25 an hour before the strike.
At the time of the bankruptcy, the cuts made sense, Mr. Mumford said. The mine’s primary product — metallurgical coal that is used to make steel — had declined in price.
Today, with demand from China driving up metallurgical coal prices, the miners say they deserve wages similar to those they had before the bankruptcy and what other local mines pay.
They also say managers need to approach workers with more respect — less yelling and looking for reasons to discipline someone. Another sticking point: The company doesn’t allow enough unexcused absences, the miners say, to accommodate for family emergencies.
“For them to treat us the way they are treating us is just insane,” he said. “I don’t have the words.”
In an email, an Apollo spokeswoman said the miners had been given three pay increases since 2017 and are eligible for $17,000 bonuses. Blackstone said its investment helped save jobs during a troubled time in the coal industry. KKR declined to comment.
By 2019, all three companies had sold off their investments in Warrior Met, which is now a publicly traded company.
Warrior Met recently reported its most profitable quarter in three years and said it was hiring new workers during the strike.
Mr. Mumford is committed to the cause, but he wonders about how it will end. Before the miners went out on strike, a supervisor predicted that the Warrior Met would break the union.
“He told me, ‘Y’all won’t be back.’”
‘I would never quit on my own’
Michael Argo, 34, went to work in the mine not long after high school, and he has never thought of doing any other type of work — before he spent a year above ground.
Mr. Argo said he will see the strike through. But after that, he’s thinking about getting a full-time job at Amazon in Bessemer. His wife just got hired there, and Mr. Argo figures their combined wages at Amazon will eventually be close to what he took home from the mine, about $84,000.
“Up until this point, I would never quit on my own,” he said of the mine. “I would have just been stuck with it.”
During the strike, though, he has started feeling healthier and more in tune with the world and may not want to give that up.
“You just get to see temperature changes, the sun coming up and down,” he said.
The year has been an eye-opening experience for Braxton Wright, too. Mr. Wright, who usually votes Republican, has become more open to other political perspectives after seeing how few Republicans have backed the strike. His wife, Haeden, a high school English teacher, has decided to run for local office as a Democrat.
She’s been inspired by the support the union has received from people from all over the world, even from members of the Green Party, who adamantly oppose coal. “Many of the donations have come from other workers,” she said.
Three nights a week, Mr. Wright says good night to his family and drives 27 miles to the Bessemer warehouse. He uses his phone to clock into the warehouse and climbs four stories to his workstation.
Most of the time, he doesn’t deal with a human boss, only the robots that deliver the roughly 300 items he packs every hour. When his back gets sore from twisting and bending and his productivity drops, a manager will sometimes ask him what’s wrong. But he hasn’t been disciplined for slowing down.
Mr. Wright started at the warehouse with about 35 other people. He no longer sees many of those workers around the building. He thinks many of them have quit.
At the warehouse, Mr. Wright talks to fellow workers about unions. But he said the Amazon employees, many of them young and from poor areas, have a different attitude about their jobs than coal miners.
He watched some doing managerial tasks but not getting paid extra. “They say they want to be managers someday,” he said. “I tell them that’s fine. But they need to pay you for your time. If you were in a union, they would pay you for your time.”
An Amazon spokeswoman said: “We don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees. Our focus remains on working directly with our team to continue making Amazon a great place to work.”
Mr. Wright says it has been hard to predict whether the organizing drive at the Bessemer warehouse, which is being run by the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, will prevail. He’s not hoping to be there much longer.
“I am hoping I go back to the coal mine,” he said.