Mother Jones Magazine

Here’s How Kenosha Cops Will Try to Get Away With Nearly Murdering Jacob Blake

Somewhat predictably, the Kenosha police union has come to the defense of the officer who shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back last weekend in front of his young children. The union presents its version of events as exculpatory, but by any standards beyond those of a police-supremacist status quo it would be a damning confession of attempted murder. 

In a statement released on Friday, the Kenosha Professional Police Association argued that officers drew their guns because Blake was allegedly armed with a knife, had “actively resisted the officers’ attempt to gain compliance,” and remained unaffected by their Tasers. “As the uncontested facts above demonstrate, the officers involved gave Mr. Blake numerous opportunities to comply,” Brendan Matthews, an attorney for the union, wrote in the statement, seemingly attempting to blame Blake for the outcome. “He chose not to.” 

These claims are not actually uncontested. Attorneys for Blake say he did nothing to provoke the police, and Raysean White, a witness who filmed the encounter with a cellphone, said he heard officers yelling about a knife but did not see one in Blake’s hands. The Wisconsin Justice Department, which is investigating the shooting, has neither confirmed nor denied the police union’s version of events. And video footage isn’t conclusive: The officers weren’t wearing body cameras, and White’s cellphone footage shows only about 11 seconds before the shooting begins. In that footage, Rusten Sheskey and another officer, who both appear to be white, can be seen following behind Blake, who is Black. Their guns are drawn as Blake walks toward a parked SUV. Sheskey grabs Blake’s shirt from behind and shoots him repeatedly in the back as Blake leans into the driver’s side door, his three children in the backseat. (A second video from another witness shows Blake on the ground scuffling with police prior to the shooting, but it’s blurry and hard to make anything out.) State investigators say they found a knife on the floor of the car.

Even if Blake had resisted officers and did have a knife in his possession somewhere, that shouldn’t be a justification for offloading seven rounds into his back as he was walking away from them toward his kids. The fact that police officers in Kenosha think this is a colorable excuse is a reminder of how twisted our system of accountability and justice is. Police officers around the country have made similar excuses after other instances of police brutality, and they tend to work. Around the country, with the help of judges and prosecutors, officers have regularly gotten away with shooting people who were unarmed—some were sleeping in a car or sleeping at home on a couch—because laws in most states allow cops to use deadly force if they can come up with a reason for why they thought a person in their vicinity might harm them, even if they were wrong and the person posed no real threat.

Blake is now recovering in a Milwaukee hospital, paralyzed from the waist down. Attorneys for his family say he had been trying to break up a domestic disturbance between two women when the police arrived, and that the officers were the aggressors. The shooting prompted protests across the country this week and has become another flashpoint in the movement to end police brutality against Black people.

Like police unions around the country, Kenosha’s Professional Police Association has a history of defending officers who use deadly force. In 2015, after Officer Pablo Torres shot two people over the course of 10 days, the Kenosha union even erected a tone-deaf billboard of the officer smiling in his uniform, thanking people in the city for their support. In Blake’s case, Matthews, the union’s attorney, said that officers were called to the scene because of a complaint that Blake was allegedly trying to steal someone’s keys and car. The officers, he added, knew that Blake had an open warrant for felony sexual assault, though he hasn’t been convicted. Again, that’s not a valid justification for trying to kill him. “Blake forcefully fought with the officers, including putting one of the officers in a headlock,” Matthews said. That’s not a valid justification, either. Also, it’s not uncommon for police officers to lie in their reports of shootings.

“Based on the inability to gain compliance and control after using verbal, physical and less-lethal means, the officers drew their firearms,” Matthews concluded. “Mr. Blake continued to ignore the officers’ commands, even with the threat of lethal force now present.”

We know this playbook well by now. After police shootings, it’s all too typical for officers to try to smear the victim by pointing to an alleged criminal history or coming up with reasons why officers feared for their safety. The laws are often written to make it easy for prosecutors to listen to the cops’ side of the story. But ultimately the cops’ argument is straightforward. Matthews’ final bullet point all but says it: Blake did not cooperate, and thus deserved to die.

“The Road From Raqqa” Is a Story of Two Brothers That Will Resonate With Anyone Who Has Left Home

Back in 2015, Jordan Ritter Conn went to Turkey to report on a rebel Syrian soccer team for Grantland. There was one big problem: The reporter spoke no Arabic. He got a tip to go to a small restaurant north of his home city of Nashville, Cafe Rakka, and ask for the owner, who could help him with translation. There he found Riyad Alkasem, who was warm and charismatic and eager to be an intermediary in a conversation that involved challenging the Assad regime.

“There are people who tell their own stories so well, it’s like they have a knack for all the little things—the little details, the descriptions of emotions, the descriptions of thoughts. He had all of that.”

After the translation work was done, as the chef and the journalist hung out talking for hours, a much bigger story unfolded for Conn. “He was just the most fascinating person,” the writer recalls. “There are people who tell their own stories so well, it’s like they have a knack for all the little things—the little details, the descriptions of emotions, the descriptions of thoughts. Just sitting casually, he had all of that, and his story stuck in my mind.” Conn found himself swept up in Alkasem’s tale—how his ancestors founded the Syrian city of Raqqa, his youthful impulse to leave and start over in Los Angeles, and the way he found his way back to himself and his culture, in part by serving his native dishes in America.

His story deeply resonates with anyone who left home young, in pursuit of a better life, greener pastures—as one gets older, the pull of home becomes stronger. When Alkasem finally returns home, he finds that the Raqqa of his youth, the city that he still identifies as his home, can never be what it once was to him, not only because the city changed but because he has as well. 

So much of the power of this tale is that it is not Alkasem’s alone. Conn tells the story of Riyad’s brother, Bashar—who chose to stay in Raqqa, at least until it was no longer safe for his family—in tandem with Riyad’s, setting up a sort of what-could-have-been foil. The resulting narrative in Conn’s recently published The Road From Raqqa is one that feels whole, even as the family becomes more scattered. 

I called up Conn after devouring his book in two days, so that I could ask about his deep connection to the main character, Riyad, and hear more about how he reported this tale of brotherhood and home. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The way you were able to get into Riyad’s head—and Bashar’s, to a lesser extent—was so striking. Can you talk about what your interviews with them were like?

Riyad is an amazing storyteller. Bashar is somewhat more reserved, and the interviews with Bashar were largely translated by Riyad. Bashar and I had a few moments where we spoke in English, but he felt much more comfortable speaking in Arabic and having Riyad there to help with those interviews was really worthwhile. Sometimes I would send Bashar some written questions, which I paid a friend who’s Syrian and lives in Germany to translate and send to Bashar, and then Bashar would record voice memos answering the questions and send those to Riyad; then Riyad and I would sit together and he would translate for me. 

“Navigating those trips back in which he saw so much of what he loved about that place while also experiencing so much of what pushed him away from it was really tough for him.”

That sounds like a lot of back and forth. Were you ever worried that either of the brothers was going to get tired of talking to you?

Yes, absolutely—especially with Bashar, because he is really reserved in addition to the language barrier. He doesn’t have kind of the gregarious energy of Riyad. Sometimes it would be really hard to make our schedules work because Riyad is constantly moving at the restaurant and doesn’t really get time to relax until later at night, and then Bashar is in Germany, so the time difference was pretty brutal. At times, Bashar would be up extremely early in the morning, or Riyad and I would be sitting really late at night.

At times, I was really worried about imposing. But one thing as a journalist that I learned through this is that it’s always, always good to go back for more—to go back and ask for more details and doing it in a way that makes it clear like, if this is too much for you, if you don’t feel comfortable with this, if you’re exhausted, if you’re sick of me, you’re more than welcome to say no, but I really think the story will benefit by just going over this one more time. And so I did a ton of that, but there definitely was that worry of, am I imposing? Am I taking too much of their time?

Riyad’s struggle to define his identity apart from the country where he was born felt so visceral for the reader. Did you feel that homesickness from him often in your interviews?

Yeah, I think there was a sense of longing. It often feels to me like the way he thinks of Syria and the way he thinks of Raqqa are two different things. He associates Syria with the regime, and even though he loved his time in Aleppo as a visitor and he really enjoys Damascus as a city, the longing is for Raqqa. He has this deep, deep connection to that specific city.

In the prologue to the book, I write about how Raqqa was founded [by the family’s forebears], and that lineage is so important to Riyad. He will tell that story anytime he has the opportunity to because he has such a deep sense of rootedness in that city. Navigating those trips back in which he saw so much of what he loved about that place while also experiencing so much of what pushed him away from it was really tough for him.  

It makes me think of that scene in which an elder in Raqqa insists that a young Riyad learn how to make falafel and tahini from him before he goes to America, so that he can share that part of his culture, and Riyad is reluctant.

It’s funny you mention that because I think that’s part of the connection between Riyad and his wife Linda. She’s this woman from Tennessee who has just the thickest Southern accent and he is this man from Syria, and they’re meeting in California. She at that point lived in New York and spent time flying between Libya and Saudi Arabia as a flight attendant. And they were both kind of these wanderers who felt this deep affection for their home, but also felt this deep desire to leave it and to explore. And I feel like that was a big part of what connected them, the way they talked about feeling like they understood each other in ways that no one else ever had.

What do you hope the reader takes away from this story?

My instinct with that is to just say, I hope the story speaks for itself. As I was writing, the audience I had in mind, first of all, was Riyad and Bashar and their families. As a journalist, you’re taught so much about maintaining distance from your sources—I had to let go of a lot of that. For a few weeks, I would spend my evenings at the restaurant reading the draft of the manuscript out loud to Riyad, and that actually helped yield even more detail from him. These people—who did become my friends—were not the typical subjects of a story I would write for The Ringer. Maybe there’s some journalism professor out there who would disagree, but it was the choice that ultimately felt right to me. 

“I really wanted those people to have a deeper understanding of the life of this man who cooks the food that you love and who welcomes you into his restaurant. He has so many more dimensions to his own story.”

I just wanted them to feel like their story was well told with respect to them and their experiences. I also have thought about what the people who encounter them would think after reading the book. I thought of how people in Hendersonville, the pretty conservative town where Cafe Rakka is, would react to it. There are people there who love this restaurant, who love Riyad’s warmth and sense of hospitality, but who have no idea about some of the experiences he and his family have been through. And so I really wanted those people to have a deeper understanding of the life of this man who cooks the food that you love and who welcomes you into his restaurant. He has so many more dimensions to his own story and his own experience and this is a chance for you to see the person who you encounter in a very specific context, to see what his life has actually been like beyond that narrow viewpoint.

In the South—well, it’s not just the South, but that’s the place where I see it—so often, white people will encounter someone from a different background and connect to them and even genuinely love them as an individual, would do anything for this person. But then they don’t connect that person they love to their really oppressive politics that could genuinely cause harm to that person and their family. Riyad would literally not be here if Trump’s travel ban had been in effect in the ’90s. I would love for this book to help people make that connection more explicitly.

A Portrait of a “Last Responder”: The Funeral Director Serving Louisiana’s Virus-Stricken Communities

Courtney Baloney’s funeral home sits in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana. It’s not far from New Orleans. It’s also not far from the more than 100 petrochemical facilities that line a stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, an area known to industry types as the “Petrochemical Corridor” and to locals as “Cancer Alley.”

The health of people living near the fence line of industrial facilities in Cancer Alley, who are predominately Black, has been negatively impacted for years by the exposure to high levels of toxic fumes—and now, in the middle of a pandemic, things are even worse. The river parishes served by Baloney’s Treasures of Life funeral home have been identified as coronavirus hotspots, and some scientists are now researching how industrial pollution could be making locals more vulnerable to the virus. 

The health of people living in Cancer Alley, who are predominately Black, has been negatively impacted for years by the exposure to high levels of toxic fumes—and now, in the middle of a pandemic, things are even worse.

In early April, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards identified the African-American communities in St. John the Baptist Parish as a having an alarming death rate; the death rate in nearby St. James Parish was not far behind. While this reflects a national trend in which people of color have been disproportionately devastated by the coronavirus, these two small communities, with roughly 60,000 residents combined, so far have seen more than 2,250 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 130 deaths, according to the Louisiana Department of Health

Baloney has seen this crisis up close.  While first responders are considered essential workers in Louisiana, Baloney argues it was a mistake to leave funeral home directors out of that designation. He refers to them as the “last responders”: They are the last people to deal with the dead before their final send off. It’s a job Baloney believes is essential.

“A last responder isn’t the person just responding last because they’re slow,” Baloney says. “They’re the only person to respond because they’re the only person who does what a last responder does: cater to, care for, and treat and dispose of dead human remains. That is something that’s very sacred, very ritualistic.” 

He adds, “We’re not going to respond as if we’re saving a life. We’re going to respond to bring closure to the end of life.”

Courtney Baloney at his Treasures of Life funeral home.

In mid-March, as Louisiana faced one of the steepest curves of COVID-19 infections in the country, Treasures of Life had up to 24 bodies at one time. Before the pandemic, seven bodies was the most Baloney had at once. His funeral home is one of the few in the area that will embalm COVID-19 victims; the bodies can potentially emit an “outgassing” that is thought to be contagious. (The science on handling bodies with COVID-19 is unsettled.)

“The ‘last responder’ is the only person to cater to, care for, and treat and dispose of dead human remains. That is something that’s very sacred, very ritualistic.”

When he got the first body thought to have died of COVID-19, Baloney took no risks. “The coroner tells me, the test hasn’t come back yet, but you can bring him into your care. Why would I do that knowing the risk? This is the first case in St. James Parish,” Baloney recalls. Though apprehensive, he felt obligated to give the same care to COVID-19 victims as he does to all his other customers. As a stickler for taking precautions when handling any dead body, he had lots of protective gear on hand. So he and his staff suited up in full PPE, head to toe, when receiving the body.

At the same time as he was witnessing his community take a harder hit from the virus than most, Baloney was torn: He wanted to join the protest against police brutality in the name of George Floyd. But work remained. He was pleased that so many people from Baton Rouge to New Orleans took to the streets, fighting for racial justice.  

Baloney and his team wear masks and full PPE to work on the first body they’d seen that was confirmed to have COVID-19.

While things slowed with a statewide lockdown from late March through early June, bodies began piling up again a few weeks after the state lifted stay-at-home restrictions. Though the workload now isn’t what it was at its peak, the funeral home is still much busier than usual. Many bodies haven’t been classified as COVID-19 victims, but Baloney believes they died of the virus and he takes extra precautions with all the bodies. 

Funeral processions usually make their way along River Road, through Louisiana’s plantation country—yet another stark reminder of America’s historic and ever-present systemic racism. 

Despite the risks and all these challenges, Treasures of Life remains a full-service funeral home. Baloney, a third-generation embalmer, goes above and beyond to care for grieving families—just one reason his business was flourishing even before the pandemic. After viewings at Treasures of Life, he or his staff often play a role at the funeral service, which includes funeral processions that usually make their way along River Road, through Louisiana’s plantation country—yet another stark reminder of America’s historic and ever-present systemic racism. 

“I have been working on a photo series about Cancer Alley communities since 2016,” says photographer Julie Dermansky. “When the pandemic struck I wanted to show how it was ravaging the Black community. While news reports cited a higher death rate of African Americans, I wasn’t seeing images published of what that looked like in the South, so I started this series.”

She continues, “I was fortunate that Baloney, too, felt that the work he was doing, to help his community deal with the pandemic, should be documented and he let me start photographing when we first met on May 29 and we continued shooting through August.”

Bodies are stored in a walk-in refrigerator at Treasures of Life.
Baloney removes an American flag from the casket of a veteran who died of COVID-19 before folding and giving it to family members.
Baloney (left) is among the men escorting a casket in one of the first funeral services held in St. Philip Catholic Church in St. James Parish after Louisiana’s stay-at-home restrictions were lifted.
A funeral takes place at St. Philip Catholic Church.
Bodies are moved to storage in a walk-in refrigerator at Treasures of Life.

Baloney opens a box containing a victim of COVID-19.
Bodies fill the work room at Treasures of Life.

Baloney takes a call in the storage closet at Treasures of Life.
Baloney works in a room full of coronavirus victims.

A body is loaded into a hearse at University Medical Center New Orleans, LCMC Health.
St. Philip Catholic Church.
Workers tend to a gravesite behind St. Philip Catholic Church.
A funeral wraps up in the rain at St. Philip Catholic Church.
A relative of Baloney’s is laid to rest. Baloney pays his respects to a family at a funeral at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church.

Republicans at the Convention Did Not Lay Out a Plan for Climate Change—Much Less Acknowledge It

This piece was originally published in The Guardian and appears here as part of our Climate Desk Partnership.

The Republican National Convention, dominated by veneration of Donald Trump and bleak warnings of the dangers of socialism, has completely ignored the climate crisis, an omission that has disturbed some conservatives who warn the party risks being left behind by voters.

Convention speeches have included Eric Trump praising the beauty of the Grand Canyon, a region his father’s administration has proposed opening to mining for uranium, while several speakers have attacked Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, as a threat to oil and gas worker jobs.

But Trump’s renomination event has not laid out any plan for the climate crisis, nor even any acknowledgment of it. “It is disappointing,” said Danielle Butcher, chief operating officer of the American Conservation Coalition, an organization of young conservatives. “To see no mention of climate change at the RNC, no update in the official platform? It feels unrepresentative of science [and] of the progress we have made as a party.”

Butcher said the Republican party’s base has shifted to become more concerned by the climate crisis, with young conservatives placing particular importance upon the issue. “Trump may not be on board yet, but there is movement, and we’d love for him to join us,” she said.

The convention has taken place to a jarring news backdrop of hundreds of wildfires torching California, burning an area the size of Rhode Island and forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate while shrouding millions more in harmful smoke. Meanwhile, Hurricane Laura has torn through the Gulf of Mexico and is set to bring an “unsurvivable storm surge” to Texas and Louisiana that may reach 30 miles inland.

Climate scientists have found that hot, dry conditions caused by climate change are helpful fuel wildfire conditions, with global heating doubling the area burned in the US west since the 1980s. Similarly, rising ocean temperatures are aiding the formation of more powerful hurricanes in the Atlantic.

The severity of such disasters—along with record heatwaves that have baked regions from the Arctic to Death Valley, increasingly dire scientific reports and a roiling youth protest movement—have helped spur growing alarm among US voters over the climate crisis. Pollsters have been surprised to find that concern over climate has remained robust even as the Covid-19 pandemic emerged as an immediate, deadly threat to Americans.

Over the past decade, climate has become a deeply divisive issue between Democrats and Republicans but polls have shown moderate and independent voters increasingly accept the science of climate change and want action while there is now solid support for regulating carbon dioxide even among Republican voters.

Some Republicans fret this growing bloc of voters is being surrendered to the Democrats, with Biden’s $2 trillion plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions contrasting sharply with Trump, who has long disparaged climate science, triggered the US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and overseen the rollback of dozens of climate and other environmental protections.

“Trump believes he can scare people in the suburbs about marauding Black Lives Matter protesters coming to burn their house down, but people in the suburbs actually want to talk about climate change,” said Bob Inglis, a South Carolina Republican former member of Congress.

“There’s a fear in the party of contradicting Trump but there will be a reappraisal at some point because we won’t be able win without talking about climate. Trump may be able to eke out an electoral college victory this time, but that won’t happen again with four more years of demographic change.”

Kevin McCarthy, the minority House leader who has warned of the dangers of Republican irrelevancy on climate, in January unveiled a plan to help capture carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants and an effort to plant billions more trees to suck CO2 from the air. The plan failed to get resounding support from other Republicans, however, and was derided by environmentalists as woefully insufficient for the massive emissions cuts needed to avoid disastrous climate change.

“People are coming round to this but we don’t have the luxury of time,” Inglis said. “We are seeing the whites of climate change’s eyes as it is charging at us and we have to take a shot. The greatest consequence isn’t lost elections, it’s that real people are going to be hurt.”

Sami Tamimi’s “Falastin” Is an Ode to the Complex Food and History of Palestine

On the international stage, discussion of the Occupied Palestinian Territory (as the United Nations calls Palestine) is often reduced to its long territorial conflict with Israel. As the occupation grinds on, Palestinians “live a harsh reality, but it’s not stopping them from living their life,” says chef Sami Tamimi, who was born and raised on Jerusalem’s Arab east side. “They still fall in love and get married and [have] kids—and they eat a lot and they love to share food.” 

Tamimi started his culinary career in Palestine before moving to London as a young chef in 1997, where he met a fellow food-obsessed Jerusalem native, Yotam Ottolenghi, a Jewish Israeli. Together, Ottolenghi and Tamimi launched the celebrated Ottolenghi group of restaurants and cookbooks—including the 2012 jewel Jerusalem, a valentine to their shared, divided home city. (Tamimi remains executive chef and partner in the Ottolenghi enterprise.) Jerusalem largely avoided the bitter politics of Palestinian dispossession and revolt, focusing on the ancient city’s culinary glories. Tamimi’s new cookbook Falastin, co-written with fellow Ottolenghi stalwart Tara Wigley, is his effort to reclaim his homeland as more than a totem of intractable conflict—and reveal it as a place where people live full (though tightly constrained) lives and eat absolutely delicious food, while also portraying the “pretty grim picture” of the occupation. 

In the latest episode of Bite, I caught up with Tamimi at a flat in Rome, where he is spending the summer. 

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Tamimi explained that Palestines are generally “obsessed” with food: “We sit down to breakfast and we’re [already] talking about what to cook for dinner.” And what breakfasts they have! In addition to more conventional fare like soft-cooked eggs served under a torrent of za’atar (the emblematic Palestinian herb mix) and chopped green onions, Falastin’s breakfast section includes “hummus two ways.”

Sami Tamimi with his co-author, Tara Wigley, at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem
Jenny Zarins

Tamimi’s hummus bears no relation to stuff you find packed in tubs at the supermarket. Silky smooth (from a five-minute food processor blitz) yet substantial (from a big addition of tahini), it’s served not as a dip, but rather as a luxurious pillow for savory toppings. The book offers two: feather-light beef meatballs and fried eggplant cubes, both lashed with fresh mint, toasted nuts, and olive oil. Not the sort of thing I’m going to be digging into often first thing on a Tuesday morning, but the combo did make for a glorious weekend brunch. 

In Palestine, Tamimi explained, males are generally shut out of the family kitchen. “I always had a curiosity for cooking, since I was five years old,” he says. “I always snuck into the kitchen because I wanted to see what’s happening. I’d be pushed out, and then five minutes later, I’d be back.” His break came at the age of 16, when he asked his father for a bike. “He said to me, ‘just go out and work and get the money for the bike,'” Tamimi says. That led to a job as a dishwasher at a hotel restaurant, where a professional kitchen beckoned. Before long, he was waking up at 3:30 a.m. and riding his new bike to cook the breakfast shift, scrambling eggs for almost 200 people by hand.

While he didn’t learn to cook from the matriarchs of his home kitchen (his mom, who died when he was seven; and his aunts), Tamimi used his “excellent food memory” to recreate the dishes of his childhood, streamlining them to fit into busy lifestyles. In addition to the recipes, the book offers a beautifully written travelogue of Tamimi’s and Wigley’s trips through the fragmented occupied territories, with profiles of the people they met along the way, including Vivien Sansour, who runs the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library, which seeks to preserve ancient seed varieties and traditional farming practices—both under severe pressure from the occupation.

And Islam Abu Aouda, who lives with her family in a refugee camp in Bethlehem, offers cooking classes to visitors as part of the Noor Women’s Empowerment Group, a grassroots collective that raises funds for the area’s disabled kids, including her own eldest child. Aouda’s dream, beyond a stable place to live, is to visit the sea for the first time, Tamimi and Wigley report. She lives within three hours of the Israeli coastal town of Haifa, where Palestinians can’t easily go; “getting in the way is the paperwork needed, the visa often denied, the checkpoint lines so long and humiliating, the regular and real demands of her family,” the book explains. As for Gaza, the one chunk of Palestinian territory with Mediterranean coastline, getting there would require the same tangle of impediments, with an additional one: It’s under blockade, and anyone who visits risks getting trapped up there for months by Israeli forces, Tamimi tells me. 

Tamimi and Wigley ultimately didn’t visit Gaza, opting not to risk getting held there. But they offer a blunt essay on the struggles of Gaza’s fisherpeople, whose boats are limited to within three miles of the coast, enforced by trigger-happy Israeli naval ships. As a result, they’re cut off from sardines, a one time staple. The restriction leaves them to “cull from the shallow waters close to the shore,” bringing in “small and young fish that if, left alone, would ensure their future prosperity,” the authors write. Fishing once provided a stable income for more than 30,000 Gazans and a robust source of high quality food for the region. Now, “a day at the sea can barely provide enough to feed a family, let alone take to market to sell.”

The Gaza essay’s opening sentence serves as a thesis statement for the whole book: “Writing Falastin, we’ve tried to strike a balance between telling it like it is in Palestine (which is not, clearly, always great), and conveying the upbeat spirit and ambition of the people we’ve met (which is, generally, always great).” That balancing act, achieved through deft storytelling and glorious recipes, has made Falastin the perfect guide as I cook my way through our national moment of grinding pandemic and political rot.   

In the interview, Tamimi and I discuss the addictive, fiery-hot and and enlivening condiment shatta; and his take on Palestine’s national dish, chicken musakhan, a staple of his childhood. Here are the recipes.

Both recipes below reprinted with permission from Falastin: A Cookbook by Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley, copyright © 2020. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Chicken musakhan

Serves four

Musakhan is the hugely popular national dish of Palestine. Growing up, Sami ate it once a week, pulling a piece of chicken and sandwiching it between a piece of pita or flatbread. It’s a dish to eat with your hands and with your friends, served from one pot or plate, for everyone to then tear at some of the bread and spoon on the chicken and topping for themselves.

Traditionally, musakhan was made around the olive oil pressing season in October or November to celebrate (and gauge the quality of) the freshly pressed oil. The taboon bread would be cooked in a hot taboon oven lined with smooth round stones, to create small craters in the bread in which the meat juices, onion, and olive oil all happily pool. Musakhan is cooked year-round, nowadays, layered with store-bought taboon or pita bread, and is a dish to suit all occasions—easy and comforting enough to be the perfect weeknight supper as it is, but also special enough to stand alongside other dishes at a feast.

Playing around: The chicken can be replaced with thick slices of roasted eggplant or chunky cauliflower florets, if you like (or a mixture of both), for a vegetarian alternative. If you do this, toss the slices or florets in the oil and spices, as you do the chicken, and roast at 425°F for about 25 minutes for the cauliflower and about 35 minutes for the eggplant.

1 chicken (about 3¾ lb/1.7kg), cut into 4 pieces (3 lb/1.4kg), or 2 lb 2 oz/1kg chicken breasts with the wing-tips left on (between 4 and 6, depending on size), skin on, if you prefer
½ cup/120ml olive oil, plus 2 or 3 tbsp
1 tbsp ground cumin
3 tbsp sumac
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground allspice
Salt and black pepper
¼ cup/30g pine nuts
3 large red onions, thinly sliced ⅛ inch/3mm thick (mounded 4 cups/500g)
4 taboon breads (see headnote), or any flatbread (such as Arabic flatbread or naan bread; ¾ lb/330g)
¼ cup/5g parsley leaves, roughly chopped
1¼ cups/300g Greek yogurt
1 lemon, cut into wedges

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper, and line a bowl with paper towels.

Place the chicken in a large mixing bowl with 2 tbsp of oil, 1 tsp of cumin, 1½ tsp of sumac, the cinnamon, allspice, 1 tsp of salt, and a good grind of black pepper. Mix well to combine, then spread out on the prepared baking sheet. Roast until the chicken is cooked through. This will take about 30 minutes if starting with breasts, and up to 45 minutes if starting with the whole chicken, quartered. Remove from the oven and set aside. Don’t discard any juices that have collected in the pan.

Meanwhile, put 2 tbsp of oil into a large sauté pan, about 10 inches/25cm, and place over medium heat. Add the pine nuts and cook for 2–3 minutes, stirring constantly, until the nuts are golden brown. Transfer to the prepared bowl (leaving the oil behind in the pan) and set aside. Add the remaining ¼ cup/60ml of oil to the pan, along with the onions and ¾ tsp of salt. Return to medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring from time to time, until the onions are completely soft and pale golden but not caramelized. Add 2 tbsp of sumac, the remaining 2 tsp of cumin, and a grind of black pepper and mix well, until the onions are completely coated. Remove from the heat and set aside.

When ready to assemble the dish, preheat the broiler and slice or tear the bread into fourths or sixths. Place under the broiler for 2–3 minutes, to crisp up, then arrange on a large platter. Top the bread with half the onions, followed by all the chicken and any chicken juices left in the pan. Either keep each piece of chicken as it is or roughly shred it, into two or three large chunks, as you plate up. Spoon the remaining onions over the top and sprinkle with the pine nuts, parsley, remaining 1½ tsp of sumac, and a final drizzle of olive oil. Serve at once, with the yogurt and lemon wedges alongside.

Shatta (red or green)

Makes 1 medium jar

Sami knew that he had a true partner in culinary crime in Tara when he spotted a jar of this in her bike basket one day. “I don’t go anywhere without some,” Tara said, as casually as if talking about her house keys. Shatta(ra!) is on every Palestinian table, cutting through rich foods or pepping up others. Eggs, fish, meat, vegetables—they all love it. Our recommendation is to keep a jar in your fridge at all times. Or your bike basket, if so inclined.

Equipment note: As with anything being left to ferment, the jar you put your chiles into needs to be properly sterilized (instructions below).

9 oz/250g red or green chiles (with seeds), stems trimmed, very thinly sliced
1 tbsp salt
3 tbsp cider vinegar
1 tbsp lemon juice
Olive oil, to cover

Place the chiles and salt in a medium sterilized jar and mix well. Seal the jar and store in the fridge for 3 days. On the third day, drain the chiles, transfer them to a food processor, and blitz; you can either blitz well to form a fine paste or roughly blitz so that some texture remains. Add the vinegar and lemon juice, mix to combine, then return the mixture to the same jar. Pour enough olive oil on top to cover, and keep in the fridge for up to 6 months. The oil will firm up and separate from the chiles once it’s in the fridge, so just give it a good stir, for everything to combine, before using.

*Sterilizing jars is a necessity when preserving foods; makdous, for example, or shatta. It ensures that all bacteria and yeasts are removed from a jar so that the food remains fresh. There are various ways to sterilize a glass jar; including a water bath, where the jars go into water, with their lids added separately, the water is brought to a boil, and then the jars are “cooked” for 10 minutes, or filling the jars with just-boiled water and then rinsing and drying with a clean dish towel. We tend to just put ours into the dishwasher, though, and run it as a normal wash—it’s a simple solution that works very well.

Obamacare Is No Longer a Republican Punching Bag

As long as we’re taking a look at public opinion, here’s a remarkable turnaround:

Opposition to Obamacare Becomes Political Liability for GOP Incumbents

In the 2014 elections, Republicans rode a wave of anti-Affordable Care Act sentiment to pick up nine Senate seats, the largest gain for either party since 1980…Six years later, those senators are up for reelection. Not only is the law still around, but it’s gaining in popularity. What was once a winning strategy has become a political liability.

Public sentiment about the ACA, also known as Obamacare, has shifted considerably during the Trump administration after Republicans tried but failed to repeal it. Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis, which has led to the loss of jobs and health insurance for millions of people, health care again looks poised to be a key issue for voters this election.

The New York Times likewise reports that Republicans referred to Obamacare a grand total of once at this week’s convention, and Donald Trump didn’t mention it at all. However, this had nothing to do with not wanting to offend his audience of Republicans, who have given Obamacare a rock steady 75 percent unfavorable rating for the past decade. Rather, it had to do with not offending his TV audience, which included a lot of independents who have lately become far more favorable to Obamacare:

Among independents, Obamacare has gone from a net -11 percent unfavorable to +16 percent favorable over the past five years. That’s a tough trend for Republicans to fight. They might not need any Democratic votes to win elections, but they certainly need independent votes. It’s no wonder so many of them are keeping a low profile instead of loudly promising to repeal Obamacare.

This is exactly how I thought things would go with Obamacare: it would eventually be accepted as just another beloved social program, like Medicare and Social Security. I sure never expected it to take this long, though.

Friday Cat Blogging – 28 August 2020

I had two pictures ready to go this week. One was of Hilbert and Hopper taken at my house. The other was of Stripey taken at my mother’s house. I asked her to make a totally unbiased choice of which picture to use, and she chose the picture of Stripey. “You never get to see the paws from underneath!” she gushed. Sure, mom. Totally unbiased.

The Man Who Grieves for Kenosha With His Violins and Violas

Whenever there’s a shooting, Dayvin Hallmon turns to his violas and violins. He’s the founder of the Black String Triage Ensemble, an all-volunteer Black and Latinx orchestra in Milwaukee that plays music at crime scenes to help the community grieve and heal. Before creating the ensemble in 2019, he lived in Kenosha, first as a college student and then as an elected government official for a decade starting at age 23. On Monday night, Hallmon, 35, drove from Milwaukee back to Kenosha with his ensemble as hundreds of people took to the streets to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake by a police officer. Tear gas soon surrounded their makeshift stage as they tried to play their instruments. A couple of days later, I talked to Hallmon about his troubling experiences with the police in Kenosha, and how he was processing the news of the shooting:

The person I affectionately call my twin flame told me about it. She sent me a text message on Sunday. I was in my apartment, talking to my pianist, and I looked at my phone and I’m like, Whaaat? I said, “Send me the video link, send me the video link,” and my twin flame sent me the video link, and so I watched it, and it was just straight-up murder. And I looked at the pianist and I said, “Kenosha is gonna burn to the ground.”

I grew up in Racine, but I lived for a while in Kenosha. In 2003, when I was beginning college, I had just come out of the closet to my mother. My mother, a Christian woman, at the time was extraordinarily homophobic, and she kicked me out of her house. I had just started a job at Kmart, and I went to work, but I hadn’t even gotten my first paycheck, I didn’t have any money, so at lunch when I had nothing to eat I just got the violin out of the car and played it. I ended up in Kenosha because a friend of mine there took me in. I just never had enough money to leave.

“I looked at the pianist and I said, ‘Kenosha is gonna burn to the ground.'”

My stepfather was a doctor. I come from an upper-middle-class family, and we were not taught to be afraid of law enforcement. We were taught to be aware and respectful, but fear was never a component. As a boy, my baseball coach was a white man, Officer Garrett, and my team was called the Mount Pleasant Police Department Enforcers. But in college in Kenosha, I was pulled over, if not every week, every two weeks. When I tell people that Kenosha broke me, this is what I’m talking about. It was a radical shift from what I had known and what I was accustomed to. Awareness is one thing; fear is altogether different.

After college, I ended up on the Kenosha County Board representing a city district. Around 2010, I was coming home from a haircut, and I saw a police squad, and the hood on the dash was up. It seemed strange—the station was nearby, was the engine overheating? Then I saw on the other side of the hood was a Black man who was being illegally searched. They were using the hood of the squad to block the dash cam. Another time, I remember walking to church down 56th Street, right past the elementary school, full almost entirely of Black and brown kids, and there were law enforcement with big guns and riot gear, charging down the sidewalk in the afternoon. And they charged directly into a house I had just walked past, with the school across the street. And the babies are getting ready to be let out, and anything could go down when you charge into the house, and nobody told the teachers to keep the babies inside. It’s something that would never, ever happen in an upper-middle-class white neighborhood.

“In Kenosha, I was pulled over, if not every week, every two weeks.”

One day I came home from work, and a police squad rolled up, two white officers, and they say, “Someone’s looking for you.” I said, “There’s nobody looking for me,” and “Listen, I live right here, I’m not going anywhere, but I just got off work, I’m tired, I’d like to go lie down.” And one of the officers says, “Stay where you are.” So they had me outside my apartment for probably a good hour. I just stand there, just as cool and just as emotionless as I can be. And there was no one looking for me. And I got no explanation as to why I was detained. When I told folks on the county board, someone said, “Well, did you tell them you’re a county supervisor?” I said, “Should I have had to?”

I felt like there was no progress that could be made. There were far too many people that were just comfortable. I said, well, I’m a musician, not a politician. I really want to go focus on music. And Kenosha had this thing called Keyed Up Kenosha, organized by the downtown business association, where they had artists paint pianos, and they plopped them in areas of downtown Kenosha. People could just walk up and play. And I was walking through, and I thought, “Well, my constituents in Uptown”—which is considered one of the ‘hoods—”they need music. The people who live in my neighborhoods need this and don’t have access to it.” And so there was this question that just got dropped in my spirit: What would happen if after a shooting, a bunch of string players showed up who were Black and Latinx and they played a concert that wasn’t Bach, wasn’t Beethoven, wasn’t Mozart?

Now I’m the founding music director of the Black String Triage Ensemble, a group of Black and Latinx string players—violin, viola, cello, upright bass. They respond to shootings and police brutality, in the immediate aftermath of those events, to come to the scene, and to play a 30- to 40-minute concert based off the five stages of grief, with the sixth stage of faith thrown in at the end. Because if we don’t believe it’s going to get better as human beings, we don’t move forward. The music they play is all Black and Latinx composers—spirituals, jazz, blues, soul, gospel, and classical. It’s not designed for people who have close relationships with the victim, because that is a much longer trajectory in terms of healing. But it’s for everybody else who, maybe you live down the street, or you frequent the store on the corner, or you’re coming out of church next door to where this went down. For everybody else in that space, the last thing they need on their minds is a shooting before they go to sleep. And so the work that we do is designed to help people grieve and have a sense of peace so they can move forward.

We normally play in Milwaukee, but after hearing about Jacob Blake, I tried to make arrangements on Monday to go play in Kenosha. We have roughly 20 players. Some of these are mothers with kids, or teachers. Folks have jobs, so it’s very difficult to do this. So from the Triage, we had about five players, and I called in a few white allies from Legion of the Soul, which was formed because there were all these people who wanted to do string vigils for Elijah McClain. In the car, it was quiet. There would be a curfew at eight o’clock and our performance was scheduled for 7:30. Were they gonna start shooting after the curfew? Were they gonna open fire?  

When we walked up to Civic Center Park, it was just a sea of Black and brown people like I’ve never seen in Kenosha before. And they were young, in their 20s and teens. There was a van that had a speaker system, and somebody was playing James Brown’s “The Payback.” And it wasn’t until we started pulling out instruments that I started to see some confused looks on people’s faces. I went over to the van that was blasting the music, and it was a few Black men, and they saw me with the viola and I made the hand gesture for volume, where you turn the knob down. And I said, “We play only Black and Latinx music.” The brother nodded, and he turned off the music entirely. They needed to know that we weren’t going to play Beethoven and Mozart. Otherwise, you don’t have any purpose of being there.

I could see as we were setting up, that more people started to gather in front of the courthouse and started chanting at law enforcement. And I looked at the musicians and I said, “Start playing now.” Our goal was to use the music to stave off the violence as long as possible, while not getting swept up in it and becoming victims of it. I said, “Any silence that you give this space is not good. Just keep playing.” I was playing too because there weren’t enough people for me to conduct yet.

“They needed to know that we weren’t going to play Beethoven and Mozart. Otherwise, you don’t have any purpose of being there.”

Then other players showed up, and I swapped the viola for the baton and started conducting. And as I was conducting, I could see the young Black and brown people taking water bottles and hurling them at the sheriff’s deputies in riot gear. And I look over to the right, and I saw two white men with tattoos. They’re not hanging out with anybody Black or brown, and their energy stood out like a sore thumb. And my brain said, “The white supremacists are here.” As that’s going on, there’s a guy in a red shirt, a Black man, standing in front of the line of officers, and he starts chanting and he’s getting everybody amped up, and I’m like, “Just keep playing, just keep playing.”

It went from water bottles to somebody having a slingshot, shooting stuff over the trees, over our heads toward law enforcement And then I heard a sound; it had to be a smoke bomb. And then tear gas started to drift in our direction, and we were flushing our eyes with bottled water that my mother had brought to us—she lives in Kenosha now. My 75-year-old bass player said, “Brother Dayvin, I’ve never been tear-gased before.” And so we’re flushing out our eyes and we’re hiding behind trees, because we heard something like gunshots, and we had heard somebody say, “They’ve got rubber bullets.” So we’re trying to protect the instruments.

It was unlike anything we’ve ever done before. Once the National Guard, the sheriff’s department, and armored vehicles came out, it was like, “Okay, this is going to be all-out war. We’ve got to go.” And we packed up the stuff, we went to the cars, everybody said goodnight. And you know, we all hugged each other and said, “Let’s make sure we all check in,” and everybody drove off, and when I got home, I got a text message from my friend: Two buildings away from the place where we parked, the building was completely engulfed in flames.

Since then, I haven’t really been able to eat. I haven’t really been able to sleep. I haven’t really been able to think clearly. What bothers me is two things. I need an explanation as to why my government that I used to serve in is making all the wrong decisions. I don’t think they’ve publicly issued an apology to people of color in Kenosha for the pain that this causes. My mother called me, she said they’re not even mentioning it. I said, “Because if they did, they’d have to admit that they’ve been harboring white supremacists in their community, and that the mayor knew about it and the county executives knew about it, and nobody would do anything.” It was routine. People fly the stars and bars of the Confederate flag off their pickup trucks and race. They go back and forth, up and down 60th Street in the middle of Black and brown people. That’s racial intimidation. And when I asked [a county official] about it, you know, she just said, “Oh, Dayvin, it’s everywhere.” 

“What is it about you, Kenosha? Why didn’t you fix this?”

No, it’s not. What is it about you, Kenosha, that these people feel comfortable here? What is it that you all don’t want to tell me? Why is it that your Black county board colleague during the meeting was begging and pleading with you, because he saw white supremacists running around the city and throughout his district, because he saw what the police were doing to his constituents and told you…why did nobody take up that mantle and fight? Why didn’t you fix this?

I have felt like I should cry about all of this. And I just haven’t been able to. I tried so hard. I did everything I possibly could. And no one gave a damn. I just don’t understand why.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited. The Kenosha Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Do the Men Running the Post Office Have Conflicts of Interest? Elizabeth Warren Wants to Find Out.

The US Postal Service Board of Governors told Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Friday that she would have to wait to find out whether the body would release its members’ financial disclosure forms.

“The American people should not have to worry that the Postal Service Board of Governors are swimming in conflicts of interest.”

Warren demanded the documents at the outset of the week, just before embattled US Postmaster General Louis DeJoy testified before the House Oversight Committee about operational changes he’s made to the postal service that have slowed mail and raised concerns among critics that he was deliberately handicapping the postal service as part of President Donald Trump’s attacks on vote by mail.

In a letter sent to the board Monday morning, Warren noted her staff had requested the financial disclosures so the public could evaluate whether board members have financial conflicts of interest that would help inform why they were standing behind DeJoy’s actions that have hampered mail delivery. 

Warren’s staff was previously told that the board members’ financial disclosure forms were non-public. While that determination followed the letter of the law, it wasn’t “consistent with the public interest,” Warren wrote in her letter.

After a week of no response, on Friday a board official replied, writing her request had been received and was under review so as to “provide a substantive response in the near future.” The letter made no commitment to release anything.

“The American people should not have to worry that the Postal Service Board of Governors are swimming in conflicts of interest and as a result part of Trump megadonor DeJoy’s sabotage scheme,” Warren told Mother Jones on Friday after receiving the letter. “I look forward to seeing their response—and the entire Board’s full financial disclosures.”

Poll Projection: Biden Has 88% Chance of Winning

A lot of people seem to be confused about exactly what the polls currently say about the presidential race. Just for the record, then, here’s a selection of projections constructed by Andrew Gelman and published by the Economist. The full set of projections is here. It’s a useful baseline for comparison to polls a week from now, which might give us some idea of whether either candidate benefited from a poll bounce.

From Our Archives, a Visit to the Culture Wars (of the 1990s)

Do you remember the hysteria of the “culture wars”? In the 1990s—across magazine pages and college campuses and in books (Arthur Schlesinger Jr., hello!)—there was a growing concern about the culture. Ah, that vague noun. Much like today, discussions of the problem with the discourse or the culture fit the eye of the beholder. In grasping for facts that fit a feeling of anxiety, thinkers lumped in anything they could find.

This led to one of my favorite sentences I’ve read in our archives—as I pull from it each week to give you a boost into the weekend: The opening line in Louis Menand’s 1995 piece “Mixed Paint.”

The “culture wars”—the metaphor into which campus hate-speech codes, school prayer, Afrocentric school curricula, abortion, politically correct language, family values, affirmative action, the racial distribution of intelligence, deconstructionist literary criticism, sexual harassment policy, the Great Books, hardcore pornography, publicly funded art, and many other fractious things, are currently stuffed—are misfigured.

I found comfort, and maybe you will too, in realizing how “stuffed” terms can be when they mean, in fact, whatever you want them to.

The rest of Menand’s piece might not be worth the read. I don’t agree with much of it. Its best parts point out that these discussions over “culture” have occurred for a long time. He quibbles that the misconfiguring fear for liberalism in the “culture war,” much like the fear of “cancel culture” ruining free speech today, is actually a series of attacks (from every angle, all across the political spectrum) over who has power. Gripes about the end of the melting pot, and the end of liberalism, are misplaced. That’s all interesting, and worth remembering.

But Menand, who now writes at the New Yorker and published the fantastic history of American pragmatism The Metaphysical Club, spins that out as a grand vision of liberalism as saving America. He believes that all this friction of ideas means America is actually finally doing some mixing, as real integration occurs. (I disagree!) He says liberalism is to thank for that. (I disagree, again!) And it drones on from there, with more than a vague hint of condescension.

His most fascinating (and wrong) point, to me, is that the problem is that “liberalism has nothing substantive to say about culture.” While “liberals, like anyone else, have views about culture,” he writes, “liberalism doesn’t.” Think of the “cultural vacuum” of the SAT, as an example, he writes.

Liberalism’s faith is that groups are fundamentally equal in capacity, so that bracketing race and gender to eliminate bias will produce demographically proportional results. There is no reason to believe that, in the cultural vacuum tests like the SATs are supposed to provide, people will score lower or higher just because they have breasts or darker skin. Holding cultural background constant, liberals believe we can measure, and reward, excellence and excellence alone.

I think many would find the SAT example laughable. The test’s false neutrality is the problem. In a racist society, you cannot, as liberalism would hope, just keep “cultural background constant.” Menand holds out hope for the triumph of a neutral meritocracy that liberalism will create. Well, it hasn’t happened.

But, at the same time, I think Menand is aware of how capitalist democracies are prone to complain about “culture” as a code for battles over inequality.

The obsession with “culture” (as opposed to, say, economics) as the key to our national problems draws on an intellectual tradition which points to culture (high culture, indigenous culture, or folk culture, depending on the theorist) as the element of continuity and moral coherence in a world characterized precisely by its lack of respect for continuity and moral coherence. The trouble with this faith is that in addition to being socially and economically mobile and unstable, modern liberal societies are culturally mobile and unstable, as well. Capitalist democracies are not just permissive about cultural change; they actually thrive on it. A new taste means a new market. A free-for-all is exactly the sort of “culture war” capitalist societies produce.

Even if you hate all of this Menand article, take comfort—hate-reading a long article can be a lovely weekend activity too. Plus, his recent one on affirmative action in the New Yorker has a markedly different series of conclusions. Check that out here.

Thousands March on Washington to Demand an End to Police Brutality and Racism

On the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—and five days after police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot Jacob Blake four times in the back—thousands of people are converging on the National Mall to demand police reform, voting rights expansion, and racial equality.

Mother Jones’ Matt Cohen is reporting live from the march, formally titled “Get Your Knee Off Our Necks.” Follow along below for updates.

After activists added their own “DEFUND THE POLICE” message to Black Lives Matter plaza, city officials covered it up. But activists are making sure the message is still loud and clear. pic.twitter.com/hFntaVM17k

— Matt Cohen (@Matt_D_Cohen) August 28, 2020

Rochelle, 24, from DC held signs similar to these five years ago. “It’s disappointing to have to be hear again and again,” she says. But she has hope this moment will lead to systemic change. “Hope is all we have.” pic.twitter.com/CCDbtgxLYC

— Matt Cohen (@Matt_D_Cohen) August 28, 2020

Ricardo Williams, 58, hopes his son won’t have to give his grandson the same “talk” about police that every Black parent gives their child. That’s why he came to today’s march from Florida. “It’s been over 400 years and we’re entitled to our rights as American citizens,” he says. pic.twitter.com/7JkNwmFSML

— Matt Cohen (@Matt_D_Cohen) August 28, 2020

Yolana Renee King, the 12-year-old granddaughter of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, issued a poignant call to combat police brutality, climate change, and poverty. “My generation has already taken to the streets—peacefully and with masks, and socially distanced—to protest racism,” she said. “I want to ask the young people here to join me in pledging that we have only just begun to fight, and that we will be the generation that moves from ‘me’ to ‘we.’”

In powerful remarks, MLK Jr.’s only granddaughter Yolanda Renee King calls on her generation to end systemic racism, police violence, gun violence, the climate crisis, and poverty, ‘ONCE AND FOR ALL, NOW AND FOREVER’ #MarchOnWashington pic.twitter.com/FQNajWMBcE

— NowThis (@nowthisnews) August 28, 2020

Martin Luther King III drew a parallel between Jim Crow-era voter suppression and President Trump’s attempts to sabotage the United States Postal Service amid a pandemic that has disproportionately affected Black communities and made it dangerous to cast ballots in person. “We shouldn’t have to risk our lives to cast our votes,” he said. “We need to be able to do what President Trump does: vote safely by mail.”

Fifty-seven years after his father’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, King called attention to continued police killings of Black Americans like George Floyd and Elijah McClain. “There’s a knee upon the neck of democracy,” he said, “and our nation can only live so long without the oxygen of freedom.”

“There’s a knee upon the neck of democracy”

Martin Luther King III demands voting transparency and warns of disenfranchisement as he demands US voters are able to vote in safety by mail https://t.co/MJDENjCrkj pic.twitter.com/uzBmpHtN8u

— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) August 28, 2020

 

Masks on, socially distant protest. Quite the contrast from Trump’s illegal campaign rally at the White House last night. pic.twitter.com/Lkmtu9FmQ7

— Matt Cohen (@Matt_D_Cohen) August 28, 2020

Philonise Floyd, still mourning the loss of his brother George, issued an emotional tribute to victims of police violence. “Right now, Jacob Blake—it’s hard just to talk right now—shot seven times, man, with his kids,” he said through tears. “That’s painful.”

"I'm marching for George, for Breonna, for Ahmaud, for Jacob… for anyone else who lost their lives"

As people chant his brother George's name, Philonise Floyd says change "is happening right now – because we demand it" https://t.co/6248I8rXrW pic.twitter.com/i1zM19fqr1

— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) August 28, 2020

Barbara Hayes, 80, came from New Jersey for today’s March on Washington. Fifty-seven years ago, she came to the original March on Washington to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak. “It almost feels like the same thing,” she says of today’s rally. pic.twitter.com/DglVXUsYBi

— Matt Cohen (@Matt_D_Cohen) August 28, 2020

Do Republicans Know “Hallelujah” Is About Sex?

As fireworks lit up the sky over the White House following Donald Trump’s acceptance of the Republican presidential nomination, speakers blasted two separate renditions of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” But the song isn’t the Christian hymn Republicans seem to think it is.

A Canadian Jew and practitioner of Zen Buddhism, Leonard Cohen wrote such wholesome tunes as “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On.” If you listen to the lyrics of “Hallelujah,” which Cohen released in 1984 and which Jeff Buckley popularized with an orgiastic rendition 10 years later, you’ll notice that the song is less an exaltation of God than a cynical rumination on more secular matters. Now, tell me this verse isn’t about sex:

Well there was a time when you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show that to me, do you?
But remember when I moved in you
and the holy dove was moving too
and every breath we drew was hallelujah.

None of this mattered to Trump fans.

DONALD J TRUMP…. played HALLELUJAH while he LIT UP the sky’s of Washington D.C.

This is a battle of Good vs. Evil.

Good is winning, praise God.

— DC Capital (@DCtheCapital) August 28, 2020

Quite possibly the most incredible moment Chris Macchio singing an operatic Hallelujah. This our People's Home. This is my home. And I am quite possibly proudest American Citizen I ever could be tonight. @realDonaldTrump will be re-elected this November and I know I had helped. pic.twitter.com/RqNbcDTTv5

— DrG (@disneydoc911) August 28, 2020

It’s all pretty ironic, given how frigid Republicans tend to be when it comes to sex: no free birth control, no sex ed, no dining with any women other than your wife, no cuckolding. The RNC featured several conservative Christian speakers, so let me reiterate: Leonard Cohen was Jewish.

Cohen conveniently died one day before Trump was elected president in 2016, but I think it’s safe to say he wouldn’t have sported a MAGA hat.

Chart of the Day: When Times Are Good, Cops Ease Up on White Drivers

Here’s an interesting thing. Using data from Missouri, a team of researchers looked into what happens when cities face a revenue squeeze. As you’ve always expected, one thing that happens is that cops write more tickets. Interestingly, though, they found that citation rates of Black and Latino drivers stayed about the same. It was only the citation rate of white drivers that went up:

This is interesting, but I think the authors’ interpretation is backward. In fact, the citation rate of white drivers barely changes at the zero point. What’s more noteworthy is that when times are flush (right side of chart) and police can afford to ease up, they ease up on white drivers but not Black or Latino drivers. (The full set of charts is here on p. 25.)

That’s my take, anyway. The authors suggest that when times are tough, cops focus on white drivers because they’re more likely to be affluent and therefore more likely to actually pay their fines. That may be. But when I look at this data without the distracting discontinuity overlay…

What I mostly see is a fairly simple story where there’s one weird outlier (bottom left) and the most obvious overall interpretation is that white drivers benefit from improved municipal revenue across the board, with nothing special happening at the zero point. The better things are, the more that white drivers are let off the hook. But only white drivers.

Of course, this whole thing would be moot if traffic fines weren’t used as revenue generators in the first place. “Policiteering,” as Jack Hitt dubbed it five years ago, was one of the key features of life in Ferguson, Missouri, before Michael Brown was shot and killed:

In 2010, this collaboration between the Ferguson police and the courts generated $1.4 million in income for the city. This year, they will more than double that amount—$3.1 million—providing nearly a quarter of the city’s $13 million budget, almost all of it extracted from its poorest African American citizens.

Is there any tax on the planet more regressive than this? It needs to end.

Coronavirus Growth in Western Countries: August 27 Update

Here’s the coronavirus death toll through August 27. It was pretty tough listening to Donald Trump brag last night about how he was practically a hero of the pandemic. Right now the COVID-19 death rate in the US is about three per million. That’s far higher than any peer country, all of whom adopted measures that eventually crushed the death rate nearly to zero. The only rich country that didn’t is us, because Trump couldn’t bring himself to wait one more month before reopening everything. One month. That’s all it would have taken.

If Trump had had the guts to do that, we too would have a death rate near zero. Tens of thousands of lives would have been saved. Kids would be going back to school—cautiously, carefully, but without fear. A huge number of small businesses and restaurants would have been saved from bankruptcy.

But Trump wouldn’t do it, and now we’re paying the price. Under the circumstances, you’d think he might at least be willing to get his party to agree to further aid for families who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic, but no. He’s not even willing to do that. He’s a monster.

The raw data from Johns Hopkins is here.

Plague Comforts: Dungeons & Dragons Is the Real World Now

An occasional series about stuff that’s getting us through a pandemic. More here.

On Friday evenings, after 9 p.m., I’m referred to strictly as Vernal Pool, the druid water genasi, by some old high school friends, and—for a few hours—everything makes sense. Challenges are straightforward and accomplished in tidy, three-hour blocks. Enemies are dealt damage and, eventually, perish. Surprises are choreographed. Randomness is present but bounded—nothing more than the probabilities suggested by a virtual 20-sided die.

In Dungeons & Dragons, everything pretty much goes as planned. 

In the real world, the pressing themes—pandemic, climate change, state-sanctioned brutality, the government’s emphatic disinterest in functioning properly—lend themselves to a darker, more surreal plot. It is serious. We’re holed up in our homes. The absence of bars, physical workspaces, and cheap baseball tickets from our lives creates a sense of confused inertia. Are we a tenth of the way through the pandemic or halfway? Are we actually getting anywhere, or are we stuck in the last season of Lost? There is endless horizon in every direction—we’re measuring our time in hair growth, if at all.

D&D, on the other hand, is full of clear lines and brighter absurdities. I’m on my 18th session; I live in a tower on the outskirts of a village called Goosetown. Like real life, much of what goes on isn’t scripted. But, unlike reality, it’s safely self-contained. In a session of D&D, the cocktail of youth nostalgia and fantasy otherworldliness could give rise to almost anything—as long as it abides by the game’s few rules. It isn’t the leap into unbounded fantasy that appeals; it’s the lines, the structure, the finitude (with a sort of community working within them).

I’m not the only one investing in imaginary feudal real estate. Twitter is awash with memes about the game. The /r/DnD subreddit has added half a million subscribers this year. It’s impossible to know the motivations of those people, but surely at least a few killed their plants and realized baking is hard. Before the pandemic, D&D might seem an escapist anachronism to outsiders: the cartoon fantasy box art, the 1970s nerd zeitgeist, the plot milestones important to no one but your group of dorks. You are in your friend’s basement—carpet shagged and air conditioned—collectively imagining a confrontation with a band of goblins or kobolds (goblins, but reptilian!).

But, in playing, I’ve found another side of D&D. Traditionally, we think of such games as a way to escape society into another universe. I was finding that it, actually, became a conduit back to a semi-normal life. The game provided the comfortingly rigid rules of a society, and the room to experiment, cooperate, and play with friends. It was drawing me into the “real world”—at least what it should be.

That was the intention. In 1974, when Gary Gygax and David Arneson created the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons it was part of a broader game revolution.

In the 1950s, wargames (which are what they sound like, strategy games that simulate warfare, putting players in control of armies destined to destroy each other, with an emphasis on realism) had dominated the board game industry. Companies had capitalized on the post–Word War II glamorization of the battlefield. The company Avalon Hill released the popular Gettysburg, which allows players to recreate the 1863 battle that was the turning point of the American Civil War. America—high on the sweet fumes of victory—enjoyed playing out its selective past to confirm a trajectory bending it toward a future that World War II had validated: status as the greatest country ever. 

Then, in the mid-1960s, two things happened. Gamers began to experiment with new structural elements (like narrative and playable nonmilitary characters) and add objectives beyond sheer brutal domination. And a counterculture obsessed with the future as a utopia emerged. The “opposition to the Vietnam War and militarism,” writes Texas State University professor Joseph Laycock in his 2015 book, Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic Over Role-Playing Games Says About Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds, “inspired interest in noncompetitive games.” The New Games Movement surfaced too. It brought outdoor games that “emphasized play for the sake of play” instead of winning. (One example: a tug-of-war-like game where players would switch teams when one side looked close to capitulating, to ensure the game could continue.) The same people questioning the government as war machine wondered why every fun activity had to be about violently opposition with your friends too.

In this milieu, war games evolved into “role-playing games.” Players would control single avatars rather than armies, work collaboratively rather than competitively, and put emphasis on storytelling rather than tactics.

Enthusiasts like to point out that titles within the new genre, including D&D, might not actually be games—but rituals. This distinction in the RPG world has been written about ad nauseam. But, with good reason. In the shift from wargames to RPGs, players began working together toward a common goal: kill the dragon, trick the wizard, complete the quest. According to French structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose work is the basis for this argument, having a common goal is the threshold that moves an activity from game to ritual. He writes in his 1962 book, The Savage Mind:

Games thus appear to have a disjunctive effect: they end in the establishment of a difference between individual players or teams where originally there was no indication of inequality. And at the end of the game they are distinguished into winners and losers. Ritual, on the other hand, is the exact inverse; it conjoins, for it brings about a union (one might even say communion in this context) or in any case an organic relation between two initially separate groups.

Off this, writer Paul La Farge makes an interesting proposition in his excellent 2006 Believer essay, “Destroy All Monsters,” that D&D fulfilled its fundamentally hippie countercultural project: “Show people how to have a good time, a mind-blowing, life-changing, all-night-long good time, by cooperating with each other!” 

If the 1960s were spent fawning over a utopia peaking on the horizon, the 1970s were a painful reckoning with the fact that it was always just a fata morgana. In quick succession, the decade piled on assassinations, Nixon, the failed Vietnam misadventure, recession, and the inklings of a coming neoliberalism. For millions of people, the American superstructure long deemed reliable was swiftly proven to be vulnerable, even impotent. It’s difficult to say whether the greasy teens and college students playing D&D were acutely disillusioned with those things. Either way, in the shadow of the decade, their ranks grew. According to Laycock’s book, by 1979 there were an estimated 300,000 players.

That makes me wonder if, despite the clear and present threats, the appeal of D&D for my group isn’t far off from the appeal it had 40 years ago. It wasn’t just an escape from the rules of reality, but it offers a sense of security there are rules at all.

In D&D, the rulebook is present and accessible, and not waylaid by random forces beyond the circle of players poring over it. “The rules are guaranteed,” LaFarge writes, “unlike the implicit, arbitrary, and often malign rules that people live by in the actual world.”

When our band of “good guys who always win” was assembled in mid-March with a public Facebook post, I had no guardrails. Weekends had become a cavernous, daunting social void. Most of my roommates were waiting out the quarantine with their families.

Now, I know what to expect. It’s dumb. But also clear. Zooming people I haven’t spoken to in years, I know our attempt to heist a band of dwarves who run a criminal syndicate in the eclectic trade city of Keaton (a “patchwork quilt knitted by a dozen different people with very conflicting ideas about how the quilt ought to look” that the dungeon master imagined into existence like an hour before our meeting) has understandable steps. To infiltrate the criminal hideout, we’ll need shapeshifting and charm spells. Still, there’s mystery. Somehow, we created an intra-organization uprising along the way, before escaping with a pirate guide named Cid Citrus aboard our giant flying manta ray. It is as radically dorky as it sounds.

There are seven of us, a group of childhood friends I’d spent countless hours playing video games with, fueled by soda and sleepover energy. Before, we’d lost touch. Correspondence relaxed to belated birthday wishes or nostalgia-fueled (but fruitless) suggestions that we catch up. Nothing stuck. But for the last four months, we’ve been gathering with purpose: to accept quests and kill the undead and explore a world that Greg, our dungeon master, has created for us. It’s all familiar enough to bring childhood close, and new enough not to feel regressive. As we navigate this unambiguous world, our sessions don’t just advance the plot of D&D. Our conversations drift to how we’re managing the circumstances of the world, or little anecdotes on how we’ve spent the years apart. Better than hair growth, better than Twitter, that has become how I measure the passage of time.

“I Hope You Can’t Sleep At Night”: My Former High School Teacher Has Some Words for Ron DeSantis

A few weeks ago, I saw on Facebook that a social studies teacher at my former high school in Sarasota, Florida, had died from COVID-19. His name was Robert Shackelford, or “Shack” for short. He was 61 years old. One of his colleagues, my former economics and government teacher Christy Karwatt, shared the news on Facebook: “He taught countless children to love history and he will be missed.”

“‘Christy, this monster is trying to kill me.'” Those were his exact words.”

Last week, I decided to reach out to Karwatt. I had seen through social media the impact Shackelford’s death had on her and many of my former classmates, and I wondered how it would influence the reopening plans of Sarasota High, my alma mater.

While state policy demands all Florida schools reopen for in-person learning or risk losing funding (a policy currently in the middle of a fast-moving legal battle), Karwatt, who I remember as one of my most devoted teachers, told me she will not be returning when the school reopens on August 31. That’s in large part because of Shackleford’s death. “Had that not happened,” she said, she might have been open to going back. They were the same age when he passed, and she says going back is “not worth the risk right now.” Instead, she plans to take a temporary medical leave of absence, delaying the start of her 27th year of teaching at the school.

Ideally, Karwatt said, she’d teach remotely until there was a vaccine or COVID-19 cases in Sarasota’s kids dropped below 3 percent of tested individuals. (As of August 25, it’s about 10 percent.) But that may not be an option, even if Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order is overturned by the courts; reopening plans would still be up to local officials. In mid-July, the Sarasota school board, which is an overwhelmingly white and heavily Republican county, approved a “five-day, brick and mortar instructional plan” that allows students to choose between distance learning and going to school, while teachers are required to be physically present.

Karwatt says many of her peers have stayed silent out of fear of retaliation from the district, but she has been particularly outspoken, participating in protests with other teachers and speaking with national outlets, including CNN and USA Today. When I caught up with Karwatt (whom I struggle to call anything but Ms. Karwatt) via Zoom, we talked about what safety measures Sarasota High is requiring, how she thinks politics have influenced parents’ decisions to send their kids back, what she would say to DeSantis if given the opportunity, and the last heartbreaking text from Shack. Our conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

How have you been holding up? 

Summer was really tough. I think what made it the toughest was because we all dealt with Shack. We kind of had a journey through his hospitalization because we all had a text chain, the social studies department, and we would get daily updates, like, He was a little better today, and then again before he went on the ventilator. We would all text him to try to cheer him up in the hospital. And probably the last text message I got from him—I said, “I’m thinking about you, I’m praying for you, I hope you get better”—and he texts back and he said, “Christy, this monster is trying to kill me.” Those were his exact words. 

By the end, he couldn’t text anybody. His parents were going to have to decide to turn off the ventilator. And so they waited the weekend and then his sisters came down and that’s when they decided to, you know, turn off the ventilator.

“For probably a month, all I would do was my yoga, walk my dogs, and sit on the couch and watch Netflix because I couldn’t read—I love to read—but my mind wouldn’t focus. I was too stressed out.” 

Had that not happened, I might have been thinking more, Well if I just mask up and be really careful, I can go back into the classroom. But he and I are exactly the same age. We were talking about retiring at the same time—and he was healthy, 6’4” perfect shape—so I thought, I just can’t take any risk and go back into the classroom. For probably a month, all I would do was my yoga, walk my dogs, and sit on the couch and watch Netflix because I couldn’t read—I love to read—but my mind wouldn’t focus. I was too stressed out. 

I know a lot of the teachers are really upset and scared and don’t want to be there. But they have no—I’m lucky. I’m at the end of my career, I can draw from my retirement fund, I have a husband that can help. There are so many that don’t have an opportunity to take the year off, financially.

But it was stressful, and I cried a lot. I have to admit, I cried a whole lot about what to do and what not to do. We all cried over Shack. And that just made it harder.

So that was the deciding factor for you? 

That was the deciding factor. I just didn’t think I could emotionally handle the worry of being in the classroom and coming home every day. Because I thought I would be too anxious, and it wouldn’t be fair to the kids if I were anxious, too.

What effect did [Shack’s] death have on the teaching staff as a whole? 

Man. Most of them were just—classrooms are just crazy. A lot of people have put plastic shower curtains around their desks, hanging them up so they’re protected, or across the front of the room. I’ve seen people are building plastic barriers because they’re just really afraid of getting the virus.

Dr. St. John, I’m sure you remember her?

“A lot of people have put plastic shower curtains around their desks, hanging them up so they’re protected, or across the front of the room.”

Oh, yes. [I had her for English my sophomore year.]

She put in for medical leave, too. And a couple of other teachers did. A couple of the younger teachers put in leaves because they have little children at home and they were afraid for them. Quite a few have put in leaves, so I’m afraid they’re not gonna be able to find teachers. They’re not going to have quality teachers in the classroom and it’s going to be hard. It’s not like people are knocking down the doors to become a teacher anymore. And our subs are usually older retirees, so I don’t know who’s gonna fill in for them.

And you know how they’re doing education in the classroom? They’re putting cameras in the classroom. They didn’t give us the option of teaching remotely. I looked at my roster, one class has five kids that are doing remote, and 22 that are going to be in the classroom. So you’re going to have a camera on you, and you’re going to have to take roll and count the kids that are on Zoom, then you have to take roll and see who’s in your classroom.

The kids are going to be carrying around these plastic dividers to put on their desks. And they have to wear a mask. And at the end of class, either the teacher assigns a kid to do it or the teacher herself has to go and squirt the inside of everybody’s screen and the desk and give the kid a paper towel to wipe off the desk.

It seems like parents, for the most part, would love to see their kids return to school. Obviously they want to do it safely, but is there tension between parents and teachers?

I don’t think there’s that much tension. I don’t think there’s any tension from teachers toward the parents, because we understand that a lot of parents, especially the young ones, they need to work.

We’re just going to be there, kind of like crowd control. There’s not gonna be a lot of education going on. I think the parents, and maybe kids too, are envisioning it’s going to be fun. But the desks are spaced out, they’re going to have their dividers, they’re going to have to wear the mask—I don’t see how that’s gonna work, wearing a mask all day long. I can’t stand it. And they say they’re very serious if [students] get caught without masks: They send you home, and you have to go remote.

In the cafeteria, I think they physically removed every other seat on the tables to prevent kids from sitting next to each other to try to social distance.

In the hallways, when the bell rings, one side of the room goes out on one side of the hallway. And then 30 seconds later, after they’ve almost gotten out, the other side gets to release their kids to go out the other way. It’s not going to be normal school.

I’m surprised so many kids want to show up in person. Why do you think that is? 

At the high school level, I think kids just miss their friends. At the elementary level, I think a lot of it is economics and a lot of parents just don’t have a choice because they need child care. And then, this is Florida, where sometimes our politics don’t follow science. So I think politics has a lot to do with it, too. They’re going to go because they don’t believe it’s that serious. I think a lot of parents are sending their kids for that reason.

“The kids are going to be carrying around these plastic dividers to put on their desks. And at the end of class, either the teacher assigns a kid to do it or the teacher herself has to go and squirt the inside of everybody’s screen and the desk.”

My stepbrother is actually a student at Sarasota High School. He is choosing to return to the classroom because, in the words of my stepmom, the virtual classes from the spring were “horrendous.” Do you agree? And what do you think about the argument that in-person classes are critical for development?

First of all, let’s talk about what happened in the spring. We shut down immediately. We didn’t have a whole lot of time to plan. The school district developed what it wanted us to do at the district level. And the theme was “grace and compassion.” And it was understandable, because I do have some kids whose parents got laid off, and they had to go work double shifts at Publix, so they didn’t have as much time to spend on their lessons.

But each teacher could only give 25 minutes worth of work a day. And you couldn’t give anybody below a 70 percent unless they did not sign in or if they did absolutely nothing—then you could give them an incomplete. You couldn’t fail anybody. We had the highest graduation rate this year, at Sarasota High, ever. It wasn’t rigorous.

I don’t think a few months of distance learning is going to impact the life of the kid very much. But I think if they get sick or someone in their family gets sick, or a grandparent, that’s going to have a greater impact on them for the rest of their lives. So I just think we have to think of emotional and physical needs that way.

Would you say most teachers are against reopening or are in favor of reopening?

There are some that are in favor, I think. But I think the majority, I would say, probably 75 percent to 80 percent, are opposed in general. Most people I speak to, they don’t want to be in the classroom.

Has there been any organizing among teachers?

Oh, yeah. We had a car protest around the school board office when the school board was meeting [in July]. We had a car protest when we found out that West Palm Beach’s health department was muzzled—it couldn’t recommend that maybe it’s not a good time to open up. And we found out that all the health departments had been told to just give advice about opening up safely instead of [having the option to say], “No, it’s not safe to open.” So we decorated our cars and tooted our horns.

That’s about all we can do, especially because it’s [a decision made at] the state level, you know? Unless we go to Tallahassee, and everybody says it’s pointless because DeSantis has made up his mind, I think. He wants the economy to get better so that it’ll be better by November and it’ll influence the election. That’s my personal opinion.

“What I wanted our board to do was just buck the system and tell the governor, ‘No, we’re not going to follow your orders.’ That would be political suicide not to fund schools. I felt like you need to challenge him. Just do it.” 

You mentioned before we started recording that you were depressed over the summer. If you’re comfortable with it, could you talk a little bit more about that?

I felt like I was living in a fog almost. Because, as the numbers were going up, I was watching all the school board meetings. I did talk to a school board member two or three times and he’s like, Well, our hands are tied. What I wanted our board to do was just buck the system. If they all had bucked the system and told the governor, “No, we’re not going to follow your orders,” I don’t think the governor—I mean, that would be political suicide not to fund schools. I felt like you need to challenge him. Just do it. 

I’m a tenured teacher. Now, they don’t have tenure anymore; you have one-year contracts, so you can just get fired with almost no cause. And most teachers are afraid to speak out and for their names to be in the news. I think that’s kind of sad, too, that teachers are afraid to speak out. I did have a personal experience once with an assistant principal when I bucked the system, and he took all my honors classes away, all the things I like to teach, and made me teach all on-level the next year. So teachers are just afraid to speak out. And if we don’t get our voices heard, grouped together, it’s not going to change.

So even though you are tenured, you still have the choice of whether or not to speak out. What made you want to talk to the press or even go on CNN and put yourself out there like that?

I’ve always been like that. Maybe it’s my political science background. I would hope in government classes that I’ve taught kids to stand up for your rights or speak out and exercise your political right to do so.

But to me, this wasn’t a political issue at all. To me, this is a health issue. I know some people say that Democrats are making it a political issue. I feel the Republicans are. But I feel that politics should have no place in making these decisions. Science and medicine should be making the decisions as to whether we should go to school or not.

If you could send a message to Ron DeSantis, to speak directly to him, what would you say?

I would say that politics, the economy, his cozying up to Donald Trump is not worth the sickness and maybe the death that his decisions are going to cause. I get so tired of hearing them say, “Well, the death rate is this low.” And doctors are concerned about kids having long-term health problems [after COVID-19]. We don’t know. So if we don’t know, I think I’d rather be cautious instead of gambling with kids’ lives. I would tell him that I think, if people get sick and die, it’s his responsibility if he’s sending them back to school. I hope you can’t sleep at night because of it.

“I’m a tenured teacher. Now, they don’t have tenure anymore; you have one-year contracts, so you can just get fired with almost no cause. Most teachers are afraid to speak out and for their names to be in the news.”

And I do have two friends, one is a teacher—they were Republicans and they switched political parties because of this, because of the pandemic. Even my good Republican friends at school are very angry at Ron DeSantis. This could cost him an election. I heard his PAC hasn’t been able to raise much money lately.

Looking ahead to August 31, how are you feeling in general about schools reopening?

I’m worried for my friends and they’re very worried as well.

It’s going to be kind of depressing on that day that I don’t go back to school. But I just can’t be there. To me, it’s not worth the risk right now. I’m at a point in time in my life that I think about—remember Ms. Glasser? [I nod here; Ms. Glasser was one of my most influential teachers.] She died [from surgery complications] the year before she planned to retire. Mr. Shack was gonna retire next year. I keep thinking about that.

There’s life after work. And money’s important. But it’s not that important.

Biden Has Hundreds of Economic Advisers. Will He Listen to Them?

When Joe Biden went on TV to officially accept the Democratic nomination last Thursday, he likened the task ahead of him to the one that faced President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who “pledged a New Deal in a time of massive unemployment, uncertainty, and fear.” It’s a historical precedent Biden has repeatedly turned to ever since the pandemic’s arrival in the United States coincided with the end of the Democratic presidential primary. Over the summer, he’s backed up that promise with an economic recovery plan that amounts to the most progressive platform proposed by a Democratic presidential nominee in modern history.

Alongside those policy rollouts, his campaign has been convening an ever-expanding universe of liberal wonks to map out what economic policy Biden’s would-be administration should pursue. These experts, providing their time on a volunteer basis, have spent hundreds of hours fleshing out key planks of Biden’s platform, delineating which proposals a Biden administration should tackle as executive orders, and recommending line items that should be in Biden’s first budget request. Many of the ideas emerging, like the experts themselves, hew to the party’s left.

The only question that remains: The scores of experts doing this work have no idea what degree of influence these proposals will have on the campaign as it maps out what a would-be Biden administration will pursue after Election Day. 

The work is being done by an economic policy “working group”, the existence of which was first reported by the New York Times in June. At the time, the Times noted that more than 100 economic experts had been offering input into the campaign. In the months since, the economic group has ballooned to several hundred, according to the campaign; one source involved in the work estimates more than 500 experts are participating.

Their task is to develop memos detailing initiatives the would-be administration should pursue on the first day in office, as well as outlines for the first one hundred days, which could be budget proposals or task forces the White House should establish. “Our campaign is preparing across the board to be ready on Day 1 to address the economic devastation caused by Donald Trump’s reckless policies and failed leadership to combat the pandemic,” a Biden campaign spokesperson told Mother Jones when asked about the purpose of the working group. The campaign did not specify the degree to which the experts’ efforts will inform the campaign.

This economic policy committee has been organized into smaller subcommittees tackling topics such as taxes and budget, trade, poverty and mobility, macroeconomics, employment, consumer protection, housing, the “care economy”—work caring for the very old, young, and disabled—and the urban-rural economic divide. There’s also a committee dedicated to data-driven policymaking, a nod to the technocratic predilections of the Obama administration. The groups had been in “the midst of rebooting” around the time of the Times story, according to an email Biden campaign policy director Stef Feldman sent to participants in early June.

A number of the subcommittees are led by Obama-Biden administration alumni who have since rotated back into the consulting work, law firms, or private sector roles. Other subcommittees are led by the usual suspects from Democratic think tanks and left-leaning scholars. All members of the groups have been told by the Biden campaign to not speak to the press. When I reached out to Sharon Block, a Harvard labor expert and Obama administration alum who a source said is leading the employment subcommittee, and Brendan Duke, a tax expert with Congress’ Joint Economic Committee who is said to be reviewing tax policy, neither would comment. They both referred me to the same campaign email address, as instructions from the Biden campaign indicated they should do when contacted by reporters.

A spokesperson for the Biden campaign declined to respond to requests about the organization of the economic policy working group or specify its participants, but noted they represent a broad range of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. The experts’ volunteer work with the campaign is in a private capacity, not as representatives of their employers or clients.

The economic policy working group is just a sliver of a larger brain trust the campaign has convened. Other groups—some equally large, some even larger—have been brought together to address foreign policy and immigration; innovation; health care; education; and women’s issues. Coordinating the massive universe of liberal wonks is Larry Strickling, who worked at the Department of Commerce during the Obama years and served as policy coordinator for Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign.

But other than that administrative role, no one official on the Biden campaign’s payroll is involved in the working group’s efforts. And the policy committee’s work has limited influence on the day-to-day campaign itself, beyond circulating weekly tip sheets on new developments the campaign should be aware of. A spokesperson for the campaign stated that the working groups do not make policy for the campaign or directly advise Biden.

At least some of these subcommittees are developing proposals that run to the left of what Biden himself has proposed on the campaign trail, a result of the grassroots nature of the groups’ efforts. One subcommittee, for example, is looking into reparations for descendants of enslaved Africans, something Biden himself has not committed to. Precisely what influence these efforts will have remains unclear—even to the experts crafting them. The memos are due back to Biden’s policy shop in the coming weeks, but where they go from there hasn’t been disclosed. There’s an expectation among participants that they will inform the transition in some capacity, but the Biden campaign maintains these groups are intended only to provide input to the campaign, not the transition.

While the final outcomes of these recommendations are unclear, participants who spoke with Mother Jones have been encouraged by the creativity and thoughtfulness their fellow experts have brought to the exercise. But the immediate, practical effect of the initiative has been the silence of a massive network of experts, many of whom had sided with Biden’s more progressive rivals and were critical of Biden during the primary. Participants are welcome to pen op-eds and speak to media about their subject matter expertise, but not under the auspices of their work with the campaign. The guidelines sent to participants state this plainly: “Simply put, do not talk to the press,” they read.

The Trump Files: When Donald Demanded Other People Pay for His Overpriced Quarterback

This post was originally published as part of “The Trump Files“—a collection of telling episodes, strange but true stories, and curious scenes from the life of our current president—on July 20, 2016.

One of Donald Trump’s biggest achievements as a team owner in the United States Football League was the signing of Doug Flutie, the Boston College quarterback and 1984 Heisman Trophy winner, to his New Jersey Generals.

The USFL was off to a good start as a spring football league, but it had Trump-fueled ambitions of moving to the fall and challenging the NFL for dominance. To have any chance of that, the league needed to sign big-name stars, and Flutie, a college hero who had thrown one of the most famous passes in football history, fit the bill. Trump launched a charm offensive on Flutie and his father, and his deep pockets meant he had no problem giving the quarterback the “reasonably ridiculous” contract he’d promised: $8.3 million over six years, according to the New York Times, making him the highest-paid football player in the country.

At least at first. Less than two months later, in April 1985, Trump was demanding that other USFL owners help pay for parts of Flutie’s contract. “When a guy goes out and spends more money than a player is worth, he expects to get partial reimbursement from the other owners,” Trump told United Press International in his guise as John Barron, one of the fake underlings Trump invented to talk to the press. “Everybody asked Trump to go out and sign Flutie…for the good of the league.”

At first, Trump claimed the USFL’s other owners had verbally agreed to help fund his act of altruism. But shortly thereafter, he admitted to the Times that it hadn’t happened. “I said that I would [sign Flutie], but that at some future date I would ask for partial reimbursement,” he said. “Nobody agreed that they would. Nor would I have expected them to. But I wanted to get it on the record.”

The other owners shrugged off Trump’s demands—which were soon overshadowed by much bigger problems for the USFL. The league, driven in part by Trump’s thirst for a fall schedule, quickly fell apart after Flutie’s rookie year. Attendance had dropped, teams (including the Generals) were forced to merge, and the league received only $3 in damages despite winning its antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. The USFL never played another game, and Flutie moved on to the Chicago Bears.

 

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