Mother Jones Magazine

North Carolina Republicans Used an Insane Dirty Trick to Cut Corporate Taxes

Just nine Democratic members of North Carolina’s House of Representatives were present early Wednesday morning when Republicans called a surprise vote to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s (D) veto of the state budget. With a little more than half of the 120 members in the chamber, the House voted 55-9 to force through the legislation. If the state Senate also overrides Cooper’s veto, the bill would cut corporate taxes while delivering less education spending than the governor had asked for.

Despite the fact that House Democrats say they were told there would be no votes on the budget until after 1:30 p.m., Republicans called for the vote at 8:30 a.m. Todd Barlow, the legislative counsel for House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson, says that it’s fairly common for the House to convene “no-vote” sessions early in the morning to “allow procedural business to go on.” Jackson tells Mother Jones that he “was given information that the vote would not happen until later,” and he told his Democratic colleagues that they didn’t need to be in the House until 11 a.m. The nine Democrats who were on the floor during the vote “were killing time” before a committee hearing, one source says.

The Democrats in the chamber, including Rep. Deb Butler—who represents the state’s 18th district—immediately objected to House Speaker Tim Moore’s (R) motion to vote on the bill. Agitated by the surprise move, Butler screamed at Moore and called him a “coward.”

“This is a travesty of the process, and you know it. We will not yield,” Butler said. 

At the time of the vote, Cooper and at least one Democratic House member, Rep. Garland Pierce, were attending a 9/11 memorial service. A Democratic lawmaker, Rep. Chaz Beasley, tweeted that “many members were at 9/11 memorial services” during the vote, though Jackson’s office clarified that most of the Democrats were not at 9/11 events.   

The contentious fight over North Carolina’s budget has dragged on for months. Cooper’s original budget included a pay raise for the state’s teachers; $80 million for public schools to hire more health professionals and promote student mental health; and a provision to expand the state’s Medicaid program under Obamacare. Republicans, who control the legislature, instead passed a budget that omitted the Medicaid expansion and included a lower raise for teachers, along with a corporate tax cut. Cooper vetoed the budget in June

Jackson says Democrats are now attempting to reverse the veto override, but they would need help from Republicans to do so. “It’s been a cluster, as you can imagine,” he says. “You have to have relationships and trust people when they give you their word. You have to trust the other side not to do something crazy. That this happened on 9/11 takes it to a whole other level. It’s a sad day.”

NYT: White House Directly Pressured NOAA

The New York Times surprises no one today by reporting that the White House was directly involved in ordering NOAA to agree with President Trump:

Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, told Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, to have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration publicly disavow the forecasters’ position that Alabama was not at risk. NOAA, which is part of the Commerce Department, issued an unsigned statement last Friday in response, saying that the Birmingham, Ala., office was wrong to dispute the president’s warning.

In pressing NOAA’s acting administrator to take action, Mr. Ross warned that top employees at the agency could be fired if the situation was not addressed, The New York Times previously reported.

Perhaps next the White House will order NOAA to keep the tide from coming in.

LA Signs Deal For Cheap Solar Power

Los Angeles has finalized a deal to buy solar power at a record low price:

Under the 25-year deal with developer 8minute Solar Energy, the city would buy electricity from a sprawling complex of solar panels and lithium-ion batteries in the Mojave Desert of eastern Kern County, about two hours north of Los Angeles. The Eland project would meet 6% to 7% of L.A.’s annual electricity needs and would be capable of pumping clean energy into the grid for four hours each night.

The combined solar power and energy storage is priced at 3.3 cents per kilowatt-hour — a record low for this type of contract, city officials and independent experts say, and cheaper than electricity from natural gas.

That comes to $33 per megawatt-hour, which is fully competitive with the current wholesale price of electricity in Southern California:

Obviously Southern California is an especially good region for solar, and not every place can supply solar power at this rate. On the other hand, this is just the beginning: if solar is competitive today, it will be the cheapest source of power in the near future. And that’s happening not a minute too soon.

House Democrats Are Examining Whether the Middleman in Trump’s Secret Moscow Deal Withheld Information

When the Democrats took over the House of Representatives, there seemed to be the promise of vigorous investigations and high-profile hearings related to a long array of Donald Trump controversies, including the Trump-Russia scandal and one particular component of that affair: Trump’s secret effort to score a large project in Moscow while he was running for president. Yet the House Dems, as they debated what to do on the impeachment front, have rarely succeeded in mounting probes and holding hearings on Trump that shape the ongoing (and, yes, often crazy) political agenda of the day, week, or month. And the story of Trump’s covert venture in Moscow—like many other tales of Trump corruption—has drifted from public view. The House Intelligence Committee, though, is still on that case, and it is examining whether a key witness in that investigation, a former business associate of Trump, has tried to obstruct its probe—an allegation this onetime Trump ally fiercely denies.

First, some background. During the 2016 campaign, Trump repeatedly asserted he had nothing to do with Russia. And when he was asked in December 2015 about his relationship with a man named Felix Sater—a former asset for US intelligence and law enforcement in key terrorism and mafia cases who also has a criminal record—Trump lied and essentially denied knowing the guy: “Felix Sater, boy, I have to even think about it. I’m not that familiar with him.”

Yet Trump had worked closely with Sater, a fellow developer, on the Trump Soho, a hotel condominium that opened in 2010 in New York City, and after that Sater had served as a scout for Trump, looking for projects in Russia and elsewhere. Sater even carried a business card identifying him as a Trump Organization consultant. Starting in September 2015, Sater became the middleman in Trump’s latest attempt to develop a tower in Moscow, which had long been a goal for Trump. Collaborating with Michael Cohen, then Trump’s lawyer and fixer, Sater hooked up the Trump Organization with a Russian company for this Moscow deal that could, if successful, reap Trump hundreds of millions of dollars. Trump himself signed a letter of intent for the project in October 2015. In emails to Cohen, Sater maintained that this deal could help Trump win the 2016 election. 

The gargantuan venture certainly could not have succeeded if Russian President Vladimir Putin and his regime felt unkindly toward Trump. So Trump, as he campaigned, was in no position to speak critically of Putin or his government—that is, if he gave a damn about this project. And indeed Trump often gushed positively about Putin and refused to endorse criticism of the Russian leader (who, as it turned out, had ordered a clandestine attack on the American election in part to help Trump). In January 2016, Cohen even contacted Putin’s office for help on the project and spoke to an assistant to a key Putin aide about the venture. Cohen and Sater also considered giving Putin a $50 million penthouse in the tower to lure Russian oligarchs to buy into the project.

The Moscow tower project eventually fizzled out in mid-2016, as Trump neared winning the GOP nomination. Yet Trump never disclosed these negotiations to the public. He kept saying he had no interests in Russia and that he was an America First kind of candidate—not a pol who pursued a clandestine business deal that could not proceed if he criticized a foreign adversary. And after the election, once Trump’s private negotiations for this project had become public, Cohen lied to the House and Senate intelligence committees about the Moscow deal, falsely claiming that he had cut it off in January 2016  and that he had not spoken to Putin’s office about it. Cohen later admitted to special counsel Robert Mueller he had misled congressional investigators, and that’s one reason he is currently residing in a federal facility in upstate New York. 

Sater, too, has been questioned by the House Intelligence Committee—twice. Both times were private sessions. The committee so far has chosen not to hold a public hearing with Sater. In fact, there have been no public congressional hearings dedicated solely to Trump’s secret Moscow deal, though Cohen did appear before the House Oversight Committee in February and testified that Trump had indirectly encouraged him to lie to congressional investigators about the project.

Sater tells Mother Jones that he has no objection to releasing the transcripts of his two sessions with the intelligence committee. And, he adds, he would like to testify publicly. Such a hearing could be explosive, if it places in the spotlight the secret negotiations Trump held for the Russian project as he ran for president. (Some Democrats have noted they have questions about Sater’s credibility—though there is no doubt about the fundamental elements of this episode: Sater spent months working with Cohen to broker this deal for Trump. And Sater has handed over to the committee records related to this project. ) 

Asked whether the House Intelligence Committee would release the transcripts of its sessions with Sater, a committee staffer provided this statement: “Mr. Sater still has not fully cooperated with the committee in providing documents we believe to be in his possession, and he remains under subpoena until he fully complies. We plan on releasing Mr. Sater’s transcript once that thread of our investigation is completed.” And this staffer adds, “We are still actively pursuing a number of open questions, including whether Mr. Sater played a role in assisting Michael Cohen to obstruct the committee’s investigation.”

This suggests that Sater is on the hot seat and possibly a target of the committee’s investigation. But Sater and his lawyer, Robert Wolf, deny he has withheld information, maintaining he has cooperated fully. In a statement sent to Mother Jones, Wolf says:

Over a month ago Mr. Sater completely produced all responsive documents requested by the subpoena and fully complied with the Committee’s July 30, 2019 letter requiring those documents be unredacted. In that same letter the Committee said they would address in separate correspondence Mr. Sater’s prior objections based upon attorney client privilege. However,  no further correspondence has been received from the Committee in the last six weeks addressing the privilege objection. Nor has the Committee disputed the completeness of Mr. Sater’s production.  In fact, there have been no communications whatsoever with the Committee since July 30th and obviously there have been no open questions directed to Mr. Sater.

Responding to Wolf’s assertions, the House Intelligence Committee staffer insists the previous statement “still is accurate” and says, “We have nothing additional to add.”

From the outside, it’s tough to determine the details of the conflict between Sater and the committee. But one thing is certain: The story of Trump’s secret dealings in Russia and the grand deception he pulled off about it during the 2016 campaign is more important than this dispute. That is a tale that still deserves the amplification and attention that congressional scrutiny and hearings can provide.

A Stranger’s Snap Judgment Prompted Sonia Sotomayor to Help Others

Welcome to Recharge, a weekly newsletter full of stories that will energize your inner hellraiser. See more editions and sign up here.

Diagnosed with diabetes in her youth, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was injecting herself with insulin in a restaurant restroom before a meal when another customer spotted her there.

Sotomayor later heard that customer tell a companion that the justice was a drug addict.

“Madam, I am not a drug addict,” Sotomayor responded. “I am diabetic, and that injection you saw me give to myself is insulin. It’s the medicine that keeps me alive. If you don’t know why someone’s doing something, just ask them. Don’t assume the worst in people.”

The encounter has stuck with Sotomayor for years, she told NPR—and spurred her to write the children’s book Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You. Her intention: to portray 12 kids working together to build a garden. Just like the plants, the kids are different—two have autism, for example; one has asthma; and another has Tourette syndrome.

“I wanted to talk about children like me,” Sotomayor said. “Each of us is doing what we do best…each child is doing something to contribute to the garden, despite how they’re differently able.”

Here are more Recharge stories to get you through the week:

“She was our best reporter.” Skeptical and curious journalist Dora Walters knew everybody in Longboat Key, Florida, and broke news into her 80s. She may have been prickly in the newsroom, but she dropped birthday cards on the desks of her colleagues and brought back treats from her trips to Mexico. On her final day of life, she had to go to the birthday party of a 98-year-old friend and turn in her weekly column. Of course, she made the party—and the deadline as well, said longtime friend Dawn DiLorenzo. “Nothing could keep her down,” DiLorenzo said. Thanks to Recharge reader William Weinbaum for the tip. (Longboat Observer)

Happy little trees. Bob Ross, the chia-haired painter and cult star of public TV’s The Joy of Painting, didn’t just paint trees. He painted “happy little trees,” as in this 21-second video for MTV. Decades after the cheerful painter’s death, Bob Ross Inc. has partnered with the state of Michigan to help promote the planting of trees. The state is renaming a prison program that grows 1,000 trees a year to replace those in state parks that have been severely damaged. The Happy Little Trees program, with Bob Ross’ likeness on signage at state parks and on volunteer T-shirts, has already spurred help. “We put a call out to volunteers and said, ‘If you help us replace trees in state parks, you get a happy planting T-shirt,’” said Michelle Coss, volunteer and donor coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Parks and Recreation Division. “We had over 500 people sign up to help us plant trees.” (Roadtrippers Magazine)

A new crop. Since we last checked, in July, nearly 100 Little Free Pantries have sprung up outside homes and places of worship, bringing the total of informal food centers to nearly 700. Modeled after the Little Free Libraries’ take-something-leave-something movement, these pantries, with nonperishable food and indispensable items (think toothpaste, tampons, socks, school supplies) have become a judgment-free zone for those struggling to get by. “I felt like our world is in a pretty cruddy place and it felt very insurmountable—and I wanted to do something to give back,” said Tara Duffy, who built a Little Free Pantry outside her church in Burbank, California. Duffy said that for her two children, ages 7 and 3, the pantry is “a great example…that no one’s safe, no one’s exempt from bad things happening—and that if people need support, we can do things to help them.” (Los Angeles Times)

I’ll leave you with this sweeping image from the Delaware Water Gap, dividing Pennsylvania and New Jersey, via the Interior Department’s Twitter feed. Thanks so much for reading, and have a great week ahead!

Take a break from the city & enjoy the splendor @DelWaterGapNPS #NewJersey #Pennsylvania #FindYourPark pic.twitter.com/OCiT9nyFvD

— US Department of the Interior (@Interior) September 4, 2019

Vouchers, Tax Credits, Zoning—Can a President Do Anything to Fix the Housing Crisis?

America is in the middle of a housing crisis. There is not a single county in the US where a minimum wage worker can afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment. Every night, nearly 553,000 people sleep on the streets in the United States. So, it’s no surprise that the 2020 presidential hopefuls are trying to woo voters with plans that they say would offer a solution to this pervasive problem.

A March 2019 National Low Income Housing Coalition poll found that 85 percent of Americans believe ensuring everyone has a safe, decent, affordable place to live should be a national priority, and 80 percent believe that Congress should take major action to make housing more affordable for low-income people. But presidential leadership matters too, so 2020 Democratic candidates are weighing in.

Julian Castro, the former head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have championed a rental tax credit, which would reimburse taxpayers for the amount of rent they pay over 30 percent of their income. As explained by Curbed, a housing-focused online site, if 30 percent of your income is $15,000 and you pay $18,000 in rent in a year, the government will refund you $3,000. Castro has also proposed expanding housing vouchers, and Harris, Booker, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) all focused on strategies to end housing discrimination, which can be a barrier to low-income families finding affordable housing. 

“This is the first time low-income housing has been a visible part of the presidential campaign.”

Housing advocates are thrilled that so many candidates are finally paying attention to this issue, which has not been the case in the past. “This is the first time low-income housing has been a visible part of the presidential campaign,” says Steve Berg, the vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. But, how realistic are their plans? Where should a president begin in trying to address the housing crisis? And how much power does a president really have to enact meaningful reforms?

To answer these questions and more, Mother Jones spoke with Carol Galante, a professor of affordable housing and urban policy at University of California Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation. 

Several of the candidates, like Julian Castro, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker have proposed a rental tax credit, which would require Congress to include it in the tax code. But once it’s in, it’s pretty hard to get out. What are some of the pros and cons?

The biggest pro is that anytime you can get something done on the tax code versus through the discretionary budget—like the housing voucher program is in the discretionary budget— you can make it more of an entitlement. So, if you are eligible for it, you get it. Rental tax credits would be in the tax code until there’s a major overhaul of the Tax Act, which as we’ve seen only happens every 20 or 30 years.

The Low Income Housing Tax Credit is through the tax code and has built more affordable housing than public housing ever did, because public housing depended on the same discretionary annual appropriations. And there haven’t been any kind of new dollars for new public housing for decades.

But, getting a tax credit once a year might not help you pay your rent for the other eleven months.

We would need to get changes in the IRS system, so that you could get this refundable tax credit more often. Maybe not once a month, but maybe once a quarter. I think with technology and with some investment at the IRS, you could fix some of the challenges that people see with the timing of the money.

Can you think of any other cons besides the timing of getting a tax credit?

You have to be sure that it’s what you would call a refundable credit. People who are on fixed incomes, on public assistance or getting Social Security, they would have to file a tax return in order to get it. Perhaps that is an administrative burden on the person receiving it. But we have armies of volunteers who go out to lower income communities and do outreach once a year to get people signed up to get the Earned Income Tax Credit. And I think you would need to have a similar type of outreach effort.

Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren want to use federal funds as way to get communities to reform zoning laws that often stand in the way of building more affordable housing. Are incentives or withholding funds the right approach when the goal is to build more affordable housing? The federal government can say, “If you don’t reform your zoning laws, we won’t give you money to build homeless shelters.” But communities can respond, “Good, we didn’t want any homeless shelters anyway!”

Withholding certain kinds of funds is not necessarily the incentive, or the motivation, that communities need to do the right thing. But, I do think that financial incentives that go for the kinds of things that communities want and need—things that they’re not getting money for today or they’re having to tax their citizens through property taxes to get—are the kinds of incentives you want to have. 

Is it safe to say that giving incentives is better than just withholding the funds?

Yes, I just think they need to be significant, and they need to be for the kinds of things that communities need. So, additional infrastructure dollars, and dollars for parks and recreation, education.

Castro wants to dramatically expand how many vouchers are available to the people who need it. How easy would that be to do?

It’s expensive, and it’s on the discretionary side of the budget. Think about it this way: The entire HUD budget is, what, maybe $48 billion. The existing voucher program is somewhere around $22 or 23 billion. To expand it to everyone who is eligible is going to more than double the HUD budget, and I just don’t think that is realistic out of the discretionary budget.

The one thing that has been effective in recent years is expanding the pot of vouchers for specific populations. So VASH [Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing], which is for homeless veterans, and things like that. I think that you can incrementally add some vouchers to the pot. That certainly will be helpful.

Several of the candidates have talked about wanting to tackle housing discrimination, but how much can a president really do on that? 

The biggest thing I think a president can do is work with HUD on these court rulings on what discrimination is and what counts as discrimination. There are definitional issues that affect the rules that HUD makes, like the rule on what’s considered to be a “disparate impact.” So, is it discrimination if you didn’t intentionally mean to discriminate but the impact of your decision is that it is discriminating against a certain class of people, whether you’re a landlord, or whether you’re a mortgage lender? This is a whole body of legal rule-making that the president, in setting the agenda, can support. 

Elizabeth Warren wants to build new housing by taxing really rich people. How much of that and some of these other ideas rely on having a Congress that actually functions?

Virtually all of these proposals would require congressional action. Again, there are some things that through agenda-setting and rule-making [the president can do]. All you have to do is look at the kinds of things that the Trump administration has tried to do with executive orders and stopping rule-making that the Obama administration was putting in place on some of these very issues. A president, even with a still stubborn Congress, could do certain things to repair some of the damage that’s being done right now. The things that require big dollars and big changes in housing policy from where we are today, those definitely require a cooperative Congress.

Dan Bishop Wins North Carolina’s 9th District Special Election

At long last, North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District has elected a member of Congress: Republican Dan Bishop has won Tuesday’s special election, according to the New York Times. The race drew an enormous amount of money and involved the second-most outside spending of any House special election in history, according to the Charlotte Observer.

It’s been quite a journey. Voters originally cast their ballots in November 2018, when Democrat Dan McCready was facing off against Mark Harris, the original GOP nominee for the seat. Harris had defeated incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger in the 2018 GOP primary. In November, Harris appeared to narrowly win the general election—by just 905 votes—but the election was invalidated amid allegations that a Harris consultant had committed absentee ballot fraud. After the state Board of Elections voted to hold a new election, Harris dropped out because of health concerns.

A new primary was held in May, and Republicans chose Bishop—best known for sponsoring the state’s controversial “bathroom bill” that prohibited gender-neutral restrooms—as their nominee. Bishop’s right-wing tendencies extend far beyond the bathroom bill: He regularly refers to abortions as “infanticides,” was an early investor in the controversial social media site Gab, and has ties to a far-right supporter of the Proud Boys. On Monday, President Donald Trump held a rally for Bishop in North Carolina.

Trump Tried to Bully NOAA. Its Chief Scientist Just Released a Remarkable Letter to Fight Back.

NOAA Acting Chief Scientist Craig McLean sent a letter over the weekend to the agency’s staff to address the controversy that ensued after President Donald Trump falsely claimed that Hurricane Dorian was headed for Alabama. On Tuesday, NOAA publicly released that letter, following a wild week when the normally understated agency was in the spotlight.

The controversy began with several days of tweets by Trump insisting that his prediction about Dorian and Alabama was correct.

On Friday afternoon, NOAA had put out an unsigned statement backing Trump and admonishing the Birmingham office, writing that the “Birmingham National Weather Service’s Sunday morning tweet spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”

This statement was widely viewed as politicizing the weather. Then on Monday, the director of NOAA’s National Weather Service, Louis Uccellini, led a standing ovation for the forecasters in the Birmingham, Alabama, office who corrected Trump’s false assertion that Alabama was in Dorian’s path. NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce, and on the same day, the New York Times reported that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross “threatened to fire top employees at the federal scientific agency responsible for weather forecasts last Friday after the agency’s Birmingham office contradicted President Trump’s claim that Hurricane Dorian might hit Alabama.”

This conflict culminated in a letter McLean sent to NOAA staff promising an investigation into why the agency released that statement supporting Trump’s false warnings for Alabama. That now-public letter reads:

During the course of the storm, as I am sure you are aware, there were routine and exceptional expert forecasts, the best possible, issued by the NWS Forecasters…As I’m sure you also know, there was a complex issue involving the President commenting on the path of the hurricane. The NWS Forecaster(s) corrected any public misunderstanding in an expert and timely way, as they should. There followed, last Friday, an unsigned press release from “NOAA” that inappropriately and incorrectly contradicted the NWS forecaster. My understanding is that this intervention to contradict the forecaster was not based on science but on external factors including reputation and appearance, or simply put, political.

McLean goes on to explain that he will investigate whether the NOAA press release was a violation of the agency’s policy on scientific integrity:

Unfortunately, the press release of last Friday violated this trust and violated NOAA’s policies of scientific integrity. In my role as Assistant Administrator for Research, and as I continue to administratively serve as Acting Chief Scientist, I am pursuing the potential violations of our NOAA Administrative Order on Scientific Integrity…I have a responsibility to pursue these truths. I will.

There have been no reactions from the White House or the office of Commerce Secretary Ross to the letter. 

Health Update

Apparently the Evil Dex is working: my M-protein level dropped from 0.52 in August to 0.39 in September. I suppose this means I’ll have to come up with a new name for it. Maybe the Janus-faced Dex. Or the Yin-Yang Dex. In any case, two cheers for the dex.

Michael Flynn’s Deep State Strategy Is Failing in Court. He May Not Care.

Michael Flynn’s combative new legal strategy appears to be failing in federal court. But it is increasingly clear that Flynn is aiming at a different audience. He’s apparently hoping that by claiming he was targeted by overzealous prosecutors, he’s boosting the odds that President Donald Trump will pardon him.

Flynn pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to FBI agents about his interactions with Russia’s ambassador and agreed to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller’s office. Citing the value of Flynn’s cooperation, Mueller last year recommended that Flynn receive probation instead of prison time. But Flynn in June dumped the lawyers who negotiated his deal and brought on Sidney Powell, an appeals court attorney and Fox News pundit who has walked back her client’s acceptance of responsibility and alleged he is a deep state target. 

During a hearing in Flynn’s case on Tuesday, Brandon Van Grack, a Justice Department prosecutor, suggested he may revise Mueller’s recommendation. Van Grack said the government “intends to refile” a memo recommending a new sentence for Flynn, who is tentatively schedule to be sentenced on December 18.

Powell said Tuesday that Flynn’s prosecution was tainted by “egregious government misconduct.” She also previously tried to revise Flynn’s admission, as part of his plea deal, that he had lied in a 2017 Federal Agents Registration Act filing submitted to the Justice Department regarding his secret lobbying for Turkey in 2016. That reversal caused prosecutors to drop plans to call Flynn as a witness in the prosecution of his former lobbying partner, damaging the value of Flynn’s cooperation. That may hurt Flynn’s cause with US District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan, who will assess Flynn’s cooperation in deciding on a sentence.

On Tuesday, Sullivan appeared deeply skeptical of Powell’s arguments that prosecutors had failed to provide Flynn with information necessary to aid his defense. Powell wants prosecutors to turn over material, some of it classified, supporting the conclusion that Flynn was not a Russian agent—something no one has alleged—and did not violate the Logan Act, which bars unauthorized civilians from negotiating with foreign governments. But Flynn was not charged with such matters. And Sullivan, though he put off ruling on motions filed by Powell until an October 31 hearing, repeatedly reminded Powell that the evidence she seeks must be relevant to the specific charges Flynn pleaded guilty to.

In a letter to Flynn made public on Monday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said the former national security adviser has failed to comply with a June 12 subpoena from the panel for documents and testimony. Flynn has also refused to comply with requests for information from the Senate Intelligence Committee, according to senators and a committee aide. (Schiff’s letter also rips Powell, accusing her of showing “a troubling degree of unprofessionalism” by actions like ducking calls from committee staff.) While Flynn’s cooperation deal with Mueller did not require him to assist Congress, Sullivan can take Flynn’s refusal to help lawmakers into account when he rules on a sentence.

The upshot here is that, by pushing long-shot arguments that he was set up by prosecutors, Flynn may have blown his chance of keeping prosecutors and Sullivan on his side. Sullivan seems poised to reject Powell’s claims about government misconduct as irrelevant to Flynn’s guilty plea, positioning prosecutors to cite Flynn’s drop-off in cooperation to successfully argue that Flynn should go to jail. Lying to a federal agent normally carries a sentence of zero to six months in prison, but Sullivan could theoretically give Flynn the statutory maximum of five years. Powell’s representation of Flynn, in this sense, has been a disaster. 

But Powell’s claims are sure to do better in the right-wing echo chamber, where Flynn is already covered as a martyr and where Fox News is known to shape the president’s agenda. Already, Trump has apparently flirted with a Flynn pardon. In November 2017, Flynn’s personal lawyer, John Dowd, appeared to dangle a pardon in a voicemail left for one of Flynn’s attorneys. Dowd seemed to imply that if Flynn cooperated with Mueller without implicating Trump in wrongdoing, he could still receive a pardon. Dowd has denied that he intended to convey that message. But Flynn’s recent conduct suggests he’s betting such a deal might still be on table.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Republicans: History Will Remember You Backed Trump

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) wants Congress to begin impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump so that the Republican lawmakers who support him will be on the record opposing impeachment and suffer a “stain on their careers.”

“I want to see every Republican go on the record and knowingly vote against impeachment of this president, knowing his corruption, having it on the records so that they can have that stain on their careers for the rest of their lives,” she told reporters Tuesday. “Because this is outrageous, to protect the amount of lawlessness and corruption coming out of this presidency.”

On Monday, the House Judiciary Committee unveiled a proposal “to spell out the panel’s authorities as it intensifies its consideration of articles of impeachment,” Politico reports. The committee will vote on the proposal Thursday.

While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has consistently opposed impeachment, 130 members of Congress, including Ocasio-Cortez, were in favor of it as of August 22, according to NPR.

Pelosi has said that the public would not support impeachment, but Ocasio-Cortez insists that her constituents, including immigrant communities in the Bronx and Queens, are “absolutely supportive of impeachment.”

“The corruption of this president knows no bounds, and in order to protect our democracy, we have to impeach him,” she said.

Watch the interview below:

DAMN. @AOC just challenged Republican lawmakers to go on the record and "knowingly vote against impeachment" of Donald Trump: "They can have that stain on their careers for the rest of their lives." pic.twitter.com/Vp8KOJS46B

— Mother Jones (@MotherJones) September 10, 2019

Lunchtime Photo

This picture of a homeless man in Beverly Hills was taken on Wilshire Boulevard, which at various points is nicknamed the Miracle Mile, Park Mile, and Millionaire’s Mile. This particular stretch, between El Camino and Beverly Drive, has no nickname, but is ringed by the Beverly Hilton to the west; Holmby Hills to the northwest; Coldwater Canyon to the north; the Viceroy L’Ermitage to the northeast; Spago to the east; Beverly Vista Elementary School to the southeast; the Hillcrest Country Club to the south; and Beverly Hills High School to the southwest. The zip code here is 90210, the one made famous by the TV show. Average household income is $300,000.

June 30, 2019 — Beverly Hills, California

Trump’s National Security Team Is Now a Wholly Owned Subsidiary of the Defense Industry

With John Bolton out as national security adviser, the defense industry is poised to receive even more representation in the highest levels of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy team. Bolton deputy Charlie Kupperman—a former executive at Boeing and Lockheed Martin—was tapped to fill the job in an acting capacity, giving industry veterans another prominent perch in the administration. Ex-Raytheon lobbyist Mark Esper already serves as Secretary of Defense.

While in office, Trump has become a major booster for American defense contractors. He’s urged Vietnamese leaders to buy “the best military equipment in the world by far” from American firms and has even promoted specific companies, such as Lockheed Martin, from the White House’s official Twitter feed. When Saudi Arabia, a longtime US ally, drew international condemnation for its role in ordering the death of a Washington Post journalist, Trump appeared to excuse the kingdom’s behavior due, in part, to the “record amount of money” it had spent on “military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great US defense contractors.” 

That unwavering support for the defense industry is reflected in the makeup of Trump’s advisory team.

Kupperman worked in space operations at Lockheed and as a missile defense executive at Boeing after holding several positions in the Reagan administration. He joined Bolton’s staff in January as deputy national security adviser, replacing another former Boeing executive, Mira Ricardel.

Esper, who originally served as Army secretary, lobbied on behalf of the Aerospace Industries Association of America and US Chamber of Commerce before spending seven years at Raytheon. He succeeded acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who entered government service for the first time in July 2017 following more than three decades at Boeing. 

Even James Mattis, Trump’s first Defense Secretary, has ties to the defense industry. Following his retirement from the Marine Corps, Mattis joined the board of General Dynamics, and upon his exit from Trump’s Cabinet, he re-joined the board. 

Kupperman might not be long for the job, given his ties to Bolton and the uncertain circumstances surrounding Bolton’s departure. Trump said on Twitter that he “asked John for his resignation, which was given to me this morning.” Bolton disputed that sequence of events in his own tweet, which said, “I offered to resign last night and President Trump said, ‘Let’s talk about it tomorrow.'”

The position of national security adviser does not require Senate confirmation, which offers Trump greater flexibility in selecting someone more aligned with his views. Bolton, who has argued in favor of preemptively bombing North Korea and Iran, privately opposed Trump’s preference to meet with the leaders of those countries and, when Trump met in July with Kim Jong Un, Bolton was on a pre-scheduled trip to Mongolia. More recently, Trump sidelined Bolton during talks between American officials and the Taliban, sparking reports that Bolton’s seventeen-month White House tenure could be at an end. 

Guess Who Benefited From the Trump Tax Cut?

I’ve deleted this post. I didn’t notice that there was a technical change to the CPS data starting in 2017, and that accounts for the changes in income shares between 2017 and 2018. I thought it was probably due to the Republican tax act, but apparently it had nothing to do with that.

The Tea Party Got What It Wanted

A couple weeks ago, the New York Times commemorated 10 years of the tea party by being very wrong about it. In the newspaper’s portrayal, the movement seemed like nothing so much as an uprising of principled libertarians wearing tricorn hats made out of folded Cato Institute white papers. According to the Times, their concerns were the national debt and deficit, and the fiscal imprudence of big government in general—priorities that have been abandoned by Republicans under Trump. Maybe there was a little racism involved, the Times allowed (in a grudging update to the story after an outcry on Twitter), but that was a case of certain bad actors showing up at rallies “waving signs with racist caricatures and references.”

“Even if the Tea Party’s ideas are dead,” wrote Jeremy W. Peters, “its attitude lives on.”

The Times’ rendering of the tea party was credulous “nonsense.” That’s the verdict of Harvard professor Theda Skocpol, who along with Brookings Institution fellow Vanessa Williamson wrote the book on the movement. Their analysis, first published in a 2011 paper, put immigration at the center of the tea party counterrevolution. The protests were an eruption of the same welfare chauvinism—big government for me and not for thee—that drives the Trump phenomenon today.

I spoke with Skocpol last week about what really fueled the tea party, how (contra the Times) the movement got exactly what it wanted, and why people who should know better have gotten the story wrong.

That New York Times article defined the tea party as “a mass uprising based on notions of small-government libertarianism.” Your thoughts?

Oh, that’s nonsense.

Why?

It’s taking the spin of one or two of the kind of very elite, big-money advocacy groups that tried to jump on the popular-revolt bandwagon at face value. The research on ordinary tea partiers—the kind who formed about a thousand regularly meeting local tea parties all over the country and who were the real force behind this movement to pressure Republicans not to compromise with Democrats, with Barack Obama—the major force behind them was anger about the kinds of people who were getting certain kinds of public spending. There was a belief among grassroots tea partiers that the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, was benefiting illegal immigrants. Probably the number-one passion at the grassroots was opposition to immigration into the United States—and a vast overestimation of how much of it was undocumented.

But we also know that the national surveys that ask people whether they support the tea party, which means not necessarily being active in one but supporting it, show that what differentiated them from other Americans, and other Republicans, was a greater belief in racial and ethnic stereotypes. This was definitely a movement of people who are anxious about racial changes in the country, anxious about immigration, and were, in some cases, also Christian conservatives who felt very passionately about homosexuality and abortion and having laws against those.

When Vanessa and I interviewed grassroots tea partiers, we deliberately asked about whether they opposed Social Security and Medicare, and veterans’ benefits. They didn’t. They were mostly on them. They considered those to be the kinds of benefits that “real Americans” had earned.

I think that New York Times article is by no means alone, but it is interesting that until it was updated, it made no mention of race or immigration. And it does seem like there can be a collective amnesia about that issue. Do you have any thoughts on why that aspect of the tea party movement is so often glossed over or left out?

If I can just speak as a social scientist: I’ve done work that compares the tea party upsurge that happened in 2009 with the resistance now against Trump. These both happened at moments when a president who was horrifying to partisans on the other side was elected, along with the Congress of the same party. So that’s a very threatening moment in the political system. But it presents different threats and opportunities to elites versus ordinary, grassroots Americans. And in both cases, you’ve had movements that are easy to mischaracterize because what they really are is vast collections of organizations that are mutually pushing in the same direction to some degree, but also stand for different things.

And there’s a definite split in the tea party from the very beginning between the national professional–type organizations backed by big money, like Freedom Works, or Americans for Prosperity, or eventually the Tea Party Patriots, which was an umbrella organization, or Tea Party Express, which was a converted Republican PAC. They always claimed it was about cutting public spending. So they were in many ways channeling well-established elite opposition to government taxation and spending. But what gave them the chance to claim anything at all in front of the TV cameras was the fact that there were mass demonstrations. Those people were never on board with the idea of cutting public spending across the board. There just is no evidence for that. Not in surveys at the time, not in work that journalists did if they occasionally went to some of the demonstrations, or the work that Vanessa and I did in going out and meeting people organizing those groups, which was unique work. I mean, I think our book has been read by many, many journalists. And so I don’t know what’s the problem at the New York Times, except that, you know, the Times, from time to time, assigns articles to people who are really pushing a certain partisan perspective, and that clearly happened here.

So I don’t think that either the academic consensus or even the journalist consensus has been that the tea party was about cutting governments overall. I just don’t think so. I mean, they find it easy to quote somebody like Rand Paul, but Rand Paul was always his own thing. He and his father were doing their own thing long before the tea party. They just associated themselves with the tea party and anger against Obama.

I visited eight counties around the country, and two of those counties still have active tea parties where they are actually meeting. That’s pretty remarkable, a decade later. Those people are definitely not mainly exercised about cutting spending. They’re not with the Koch brothers, let’s put it that way. And in most cases, they’re not libertarians, either—they’re Christian conservatives.

Do you find that their perspectives are still the same?

Oh, yes. And they are the core of Trump’s support. People who identified with the tea party in the past, if they are still with us—these are older people, so they’re not all still with us—are the core of the most adamant of Trump’s supporters.

Do you find that race and immigration are top of mind among them as well?

Immigration above all. More than anything else: immigration. We found that at the time, and I still think that’s true. The fear and hatred of particularly Hispanic immigrants is very, very strong. Vanessa and I were interviewing tea partiers in the spring of 2011, when Donald Trump came out with his “birther” stuff. And at the time, most of the grassroots tea partiers that we interviewed would have backed Trump if he had run. They were looking for a non-Mitt Romney. They cycled through a bunch of non–Mitt Romneys in those primaries. And Trump would have just shot right to the top, just like he did in 2015.

You’ve written about how the tea party was mobilized by these elite, big-money corporate institutions, and I wanted to ask you about similarities between tea party mobilization and what we’re seeing now with conservatives and those on the far right. Are you seeing similar things with who’s getting organized today? Are some of the same actors involved, and some of the same tactics?

The grassroots is Trump. I’ve got a paper about this. It’s about to come out in a book collection that will be out in December. Basically, Trump borrowed networks. Like I say, any surviving tea partiers, they’re gonna call for Trump. His major networks of popular support are Christian evangelical, white churches, gun groups, and gun networks, which isn’t just the NRA. These are the mainstays of local life in a lot of places.

Nobody should underestimate the powerful, organized grassroots support that Trump has—he has a lot. But it doesn’t have to be assembled from above. It’s there. Trump’s gun message, Trump’s “us versus them, defend the Christian conservatives” message is maybe fake on Trump’s part, but it’s worked.

Tea partiers who are still around are just totally gung-ho for Trump. He’s a hero to them. A tea partier I interviewed a year ago told me that building the wall was the number-one thing.

And where was this?

In North Carolina. But I also talked to tea partiers in Ohio. They’re not the major organized groups out there now on the popular side on the right, because they’ve sort of taken over the Republican Party in a lot of places. The other thing they like about Trump very much is that he “kicks ass,” that he makes people on the left angry and upset. They love that.

I imagine the sort of relentless covering of him, his actions, what he says, and what he tweets is probably only fueling that fire?

They’re all signed up on his Twitter, and they watch Fox. And I have to say—I’m speaking as a social scientist—I don’t find this all that surprising. Look at the Democrats who were thrilled when the Democratic presidential nominees show some fire.

Sure. Yeah.

We live in a very aggressive and polarized time right now, and I’m not saying Democrats are as extreme in their direction as Republicans are in various ways in their direction right now. What’s a little bit special with Trump’s case is that none of his core supporters care that he lies. They just care if he delivers, and some of them, particularly tea party people, have always liked the style of politics that’s no-holds-barred.

Going back in time a little, can you talk about what mistakes have been made by taking the tea party at their word, that this was all about fiscal responsibility.

I don’t really think many people have made the mistake that the Times made. The reason the Times article is so odd is that nobody believes any of that. And they haven’t for a long time. The real question is where in the world that Times article came from. I think it comes from interviewing some of the few remaining people in Congress who claim they’re libertarians, and they want to cut federal spending. But most Republicans aren’t even faking it on that anymore.

I’m thinking about Obama’s spending caps, for example—things that were maybe happening in the moment to appease or respond to this movement or its influence.

I’d be very surprised if the Obama people were trying to appease the tea party. They were probably trying to appease the middle-of-the-road moderates and conservatives who always want to limit spending when Democrats are in power. They’ve been there. They were there before the tea party. They’re still there now. There certainly were plenty of people in the media who mistook the tea party early on because they’d do an interview with somebody in one of these national advocacy groups who would say, “Oh, it’s horrible that all this money is being spent.”

You mentioned Fox News, and I have a quote from your paper that I want to read to you: “The conservative media has played a crucial role in forging the shared beliefs and the collective identity around which tea partiers have united. This community-building effort has been led by Fox News, with a strong assist from talk radio and the conservative blogosphere. Fox is the primary source of political information for tea party activists.” That stuck out to me because it seems familiar in our current times as well.

Yeah, it hasn’t changed.

Tactics are the same now as they were before, in your view?

I don’t watch Fox myself. Back then it was Vanessa who did most of the empirical work, but evidence shows that older, white conservatives, who were the pool from which tea partiers came, and they’re the pool from which Trump supporters come, tend to watch only right-wing media. They watch a lot of it. I remember in our interviews, one man said to me—when I got to question No. 7, which was, “Where do you get your news?”—he looked at me and says, “Not where you do.” And since he watched Fox News about six to eight hours a day, he was right about that. There are powerful tribal and generational effects in media watching. And they still are there. I think they’re a little attenuated, but they’re still there.

Now, it’s not correct, though, to portray grassroots tea party people back then, and I would say most Trump supporters now, as mindless automatons who’ve been brainwashed. They don’t get an accurate picture of certain kinds of information, that’s true. And they’re not going to hear very much that’s critical of Trump. But these people know what they care about and they do really live their lives in certain kinds of jobs, middle-class jobs for the most part. They attend certain kinds of churches, where their social life and moral beliefs are anchored. And they’re angry about the changing generational and ethnic dynamics of the country and feel threatened by them. So they’re not being irrational, and there’s a tendency on the left, I think, to treat people as somehow irrational because they don’t believe what we think they ought to believe economically. Well, that’s just not the way politics works. Politics—a lot of politics—is about “who we are” and “who they are.” And these people know who they are, and they know who their enemies are.

Trump Fires John Bolton

While I was busy creating charts of income growth, Donald Trump decided to fire his latest National Security Advisor:

I informed John Bolton last night that his services are no longer needed at the White House. I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the Administration, and therefore….

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 10, 2019

….I asked John for his resignation, which was given to me this morning. I thank John very much for his service. I will be naming a new National Security Advisor next week.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 10, 2019

This has to have something to do with Afghanistan, right? There was no particular reason for Trump to declare Taliban negotiations dead simply because a recent attack killed a US soldier. But Bolton used it as a pretext to build support for the policy he wanted all along: staying in Afghanistan forever. Trump was too naive to see how Bolton was playing him, but apparently someone clued him in later. And that was that for Bolton.

I’m pretty sure that Trump can’t name a new NSA worse than Bolton, who has a long record of wanting to maintain hostile relations with practically everyone in the world. But we’ll see. Has any president ever plowed through four NSAs in a single term?

Report: More than 1600 Polling Places Have Closed Since the Supreme Court Gutted the Voting Rights Act

In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted a core provision of the Voting Rights Act: The requirement for certain states with a history of voter discrimination to “preclear” changes in their election rules with the federal government. For decades, the 1965 law helped secure the right to vote for hundreds of thousands of people in nine states, as well as certain jurisdictions in six other states, which had such a history of discrimination against minority voters. But in the 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the court ruled that the coverage formula for determining those jurisdictions subject to preclearance was outdated and therefore unconstitutional.

The consequences of the Shelby County decision were immediate: States that had previously fallen under the jurisdiction of the VRA immediately passed tough voter restriction laws and restructured election systems. But a new report released today by the civil rights coalition The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights adds another dimension to the picture of how this 2013 ruling has undermined voter access by analyzing the number of polling place that have been closed since the ruling. According to the report, entitled “Democracy Diverted: Polling Place Closures and the Right to Vote,” 1,688 polling places are now shuttered in those areas. The report, which is a follow-up to a 2016 analysis, looked at 757 counties and found that 298 of them, or 39 percent, reduced their number of polling places between 2012 and 2018.

“Next to the ballot itself, the most identifiable element of our democracy’s voting process is the polling place. It should—and it must—be accessible to all,” the report states. “When it is not, the barriers to participation can be high. Moving or closing a polling place— particularly without notice or input from communities—disrupts our democracy.”

“Moving or closing a polling place— particularly without notice or input from communities—disrupts our democracy.”

The state data first was analyzed to determine if the type of election—presidential elections tend to have higher turnouts—made a difference in terms of the number of accessible polling places. Researchers found that they didn’t: Sixty-nine percent of the polling place closures occurred after the 2014 midterm elections. Though the report stops short of saying that these polling place closures are “inherently discriminatory,” it does note that most of the closures “occurred in states and localities with past histories of racial discrimination in voting,” and that “some took place amid a larger constellation of efforts to prevent voters of color from electing the candidates of their choice.” 

Texas, long constrained by the preclearance clause of the VRA, almost immediately passed a strict voter ID law after the Shelby County v. Holder ruling—triggering a series of court battles to reverse the voter ID law. According to the study, it’s also the state that has had the most polling place closures, with 750 closing since the ruling, Arizona and Georgia had the second and third-highest number of polling place closures, with 320 and 214, respectively. The counties with the highest percentage of polling place closures are located in Texas and Georgia. 

In Texas and Arizona, officials say one of the main reasons for the closures is because the states switched over to a “vote center” model, meaning that, instead of being assigned to specific polling places, voters can cast ballots at whatever polling place they choose. It’s a model that’s meant to make it easier to access a polling place, but often it has the opposite effect: low voter turnout, especially in minority communities. 

The report also uncovered polling places closing “without clear notice or justification” in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina, and Alaska. The states did so without any notice or transparency about how or why the decision was made. In Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and North Carolina, news reports of these polling place closures were “often met with silence from elected officials.”

According to the report, there was one overriding rationale for these closures:

By far, the most common justification for closing polling places was no justification at all. Local officials who did offer an explanation often cited pretexts, such as budget constraints, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), school safety concerns, limited parking, changes in voter turnout, or even simple logic. As one election commissioner from Mississippi put it, sometimes closing polling places “just makes sense.”

Much of the national conversation in the aftermath of Shelby County v. Holder has centered around efforts by states to restrict the right to vote—Texas’ voter ID measure, gerrymandered redistricting, and other restrictive voter registration measures. But The Leadership Conference Education Fund’s new report concludes that taking a closer look at where polling places are located and how simple access is to the ballot box—and the often unjustified reasons for these closures—illustrates how profoundly these decisions can severely impact the right to vote in communities of color. 

“Our hope is that journalists, advocates, and voters will use this county-level polling place data to scrutinize the impact of poll closures in their communities,” the report stated, “to understand their impact on voters of color, and to create a fairer and more just electoral system for all.”

Charts of the Day: Income Growth in 2018

Oh glorious day! The Census Bureau has finally released its income figures for 2018. These are not the most comprehensive income estimates around, but they’re good measures of basic money income and they use CPI-RS-U, a good measure of inflation, to show real income over the years. Here’s the basic data going through 2018:

Incomes continued to increase in 2018, but the rate of growth slowed down to a bit less than 1 percent. This is yet another sign that our current economic expansion may be running out of steam.

There are plenty of other things in the Census data, one of which I’ll get to later, but it’s useful right away to break this down by sex:

Interestingly, personal income for men was up only slightly, by 0.6 percent. However, personal income for women remained strong, growing at 4.0 percent. Over the past four years, men’s income has grown 2.3 percent per year while women’s income has grown 3.3 percent per year.

How American Colonialism Put Puerto Rico in Crisis

Next week marks the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria ripping Puerto Rico apart, killing an estimated 3,000 people and wracking nearly $100 billion in damages on an island already suffering a deep financial crisis. Since the storm passed, the island has seen hundreds of schools close, more than one government official indicted and arrested on charges of corruption, and the unprecedented resignation of governor Ricardo Rosselló after a news organization published 889 pages of texts among the governor and his associates including jokes about hurricane victims, misogynistic and homophobic comments, and documenting efforts to target opponents with disinformation.

Rosselló’s resignation and the massive protests surrounding it brought the bright spotlight of international media for a few weeks, before attention inevitably turned away. It was a familiar dynamic to freelance journalist and educator Ed Morales, who, in his new book Fantasy Island: Colonialism, Exploitation, and the Betrayal of Puerto Rico, explains how the island’s colonial status and the ways its economy was set up as a captive market for US corporations led to its modern day debt crisis and the neoliberal austerity measures that have followed.

“The way that the media often portrays Puerto Rico is this strange place that’s somehow attached to the US—and we don’t really quite know how that happened.”

Morales, the son of Puerto Ricans who moved to New York, has been writing about the island since the 1980s. Today he publishes primarily at The Nation. He recently spoke with Mother Jones about his new book, saying he wrote it, in part, to help mainstream audiences learn what America’s ongoing colonialism means for his homeland.

Why is this book timely now, as we come up on the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria?

Too much of the media picture—whether it’s mainstream or even beyond the mainstream—focuses on the last five years or so and the onset of the debt crisis in their analysis of Puerto Rico. A lot of problems we have in interpreting current events suffer from a lack of historical context. One of the early revelations I had was looking at the book by Kim Phillips-Fein about the New York City debt crisis that I lived through as an adolescent, and seeing so many parallels to the criticism of the local government here, for running up the debt that they did, and seeing how what they were trying to do is protect a working class in New York, by giving them educational institutions and parks, which is what the American Dream is supposed to be about, at least in an urban context. Policy came out of this desire to maintain and nourish a working in a middle class, both in the United States and in Puerto Rico, that brought the analysis of the trajectory of both countries histories together.

The way that the media often portrays Puerto Rico is this strange place that’s somehow attached to the US—and we don’t really quite know how that happened, or how it got into trouble—when all along it’s been very intimately related. My whole life I’ve also been sort of obsessed with how Puerto Rico has had a kind of a media blackout. I’ve been reporting about Puerto Rico since the late 80s and found an incredible indifference from editors, or lack of knowledge. Really, it’s only been in the last few years that interest has increased, and then the early reporting about the debt crisis was entirely in the financial trade publications and had a really narrow point of view about what was going on. It was just based on the interest of US investors.

How has the framing of the Puerto Rico story by mainland journalists affected the lives of Puerto Ricans?

The lack of any narrative about how it got into its debt crisis contributed a lot to the inaction of the Democrats and the Obama administration and what the implications of the undemocratic fiscal oversight and management board would be for a society that thought of itself as a functioning democracy.

The narrative was that the Democrats don’t want to be perceived as giving Puerto Rico a bailout. And that that was the main political motivation for not looking into different ways of approaching the debt crisis. Bernie Sanders suggested buying up some of the debt, negotiating themselves with Wall Street giving Puerto Rico new debts on better terms—none of that. There was no pressure on Obama or the Democrats to maybe come up with alternative solutions to creating the fiscal oversight and management board.

Even then the narrative, as I described in the book, was that this was supposedly an act of compassion. Technically, it did have the effect of freezing payments for a period of time and avoiding the numerous lawsuits that didn’t have to be faced separately. But we’re seeing it already. This deal will require Puerto Ricans to be paying that debt off for 40 years at the expense of what could be considered essential services.

Who is this book for?

I wrote it for Puerto Ricans in the mainland, and for Puerto Ricans in general to try to give a long arc, a narrative context, for what the island has gone through. I don’t want to sound like I’m going to be educating people in Puerto Rico because, of course, that’s always interpreted in a negative way, as someone who doesn’t live there, someone from the diaspora. I try to be as compassionate as possible indoctrinating myself and becoming a Puerto Rican, which I am anyway, but most Nuyoricans don’t know don’t know a lot of things about Puerto Rico: who is the mayor of San Juan, who’s in the Senate, who’s popular, or what the slang is. In a lot of ways, I think Puerto Rico’s own media has not given them enough information, with the exception of the Center for Investigative Journalism, which has opened up a lot of inquiries that now the different parts of the media are really digging into.

I also wrote it for Americans in general to to try to help them understand something that they have been given very little information about, that the US holds a colony and has held one for over 100 years. The policies that are being enacted in Puerto Rico could be a dry run for states that are in fiscal trouble right now, something that should set off alarm bells for mainstream Americans. This way of dealing with municipal debt, which, unless you follow the financial press, is really one of the under-publicized, major issues about the economy. And we saw how it all blew up.

Every time something about what’s happening in Puerto Rico makes it into the mainstream consciousness there are inevitably comments from people who don’t live there that reflect total ignorance. Do you see that too?

Yeah, the US treats these places as extra-constitutional places where they don’t necessarily have to apply the Constitution. Not all of the people who live in these places are US citizens, but many of them are US citizens who really don’t have the full protection of the Constitution. It’s sort of an experimental population, where the US can arbitrarily pose things where actually US citizens are not protected. So that’s very disruptive of the American exceptionalist myth that most people in the US believe. These are examples of places where democracy is distorted. And the people who are doing the distorting is Congress as an extension of the American people.

Your book comes on the heels of the historic resignation of former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, and the indictment of two of his senior officials. How does that fit into the story you’re telling in the book, that leaves off just before that happened?

It’s evidence of how the people in leadership in Puerto Rico lack a true sovereign status or a true democracy, and operate within an economy that doesn’t support local business people or local initiatives to take off enough to be self-sustaining. It was designed to be a captive market for US products and US corporations to get profits and not reinvest them in the island.

When you have that kind of situation, and no voting representation in Congress and cannot vote for president, it leads to a dysfunction where the politicians come to understand that the only source of power is lobbying and favoritism, and not a healthy economy that could produce a tax base that could allow the government to not only have to employ a large part of the population. It leads to the conditions for widespread corruption and favoritism. That’s what you see with the Rosselló government.

“The people in leadership in Puerto Rico lack a true sovereign status or a true democracy, and operate within an economy that doesn’t support local business.”

Most previous governments have had some taint of corruption associated with them, some worse than others. As I described in the book, with the imposition of the fiscal oversight management board, the governor was really reduced to this charade. The Fortuño government, which was the other pro-statehood government that preceded Rosselló, had already begun this process of implementing austerity. Rosselló’s party didn’t necessarily oppose austerity measures. And they did not oppose the Junta, but their only source of political existence was to appear to be opposing the board—which philosophically they probably didn’t, but that was the only way of getting political power.

What was a surprise to me was the depth of their sexism and homophobia and willingness to just put that on Telegram, but it wasn’t surprising to me that they basically thought that most of what they were doing was kind of a joke. They were just trying to control public relations and make sure that the patronage was going their way, reinforcing their political power.

Defenders of President Trump used the Rosselló resignation as evidence that the president was right in his relentless attacks on the island’s government as corrupt, and therefore that somehow justified the president’s treatment of the island. But your book points out how local corruption is built in to the relationship between the US and Puerto Rico. Can you elaborate?

I don’t want to paint everyone with the same brush. There are elected officials in Puerto Rico who are really trying to serve the people or affect change—the only thing I would quibble with is that maybe they do it in a way that they’re not seeing as just rehashing systems that are not getting Puerto Rico anywhere. But I don’t think that it’s fair to characterize all of the elected officials in Puerto Rico as being innately, essentially corrupt. But at the top, the ruling mechanism seems strongly tainted by corruption.

The origins of most of the investigations were from the FBI and federal investigators. I think it’s possible that there are times that federal investigations in Puerto Rico could be ramped up for one political purpose or another.  I do think that these things came out very quickly and very conveniently for the Trump narrative. It’s really unfortunate that Puerto Rico has lost a lot of political points, because Trump was in effect proven to be correct.

Trump may be a convenient foil for his political opponents looking to attack him by using his treatment of Puerto Rico, but isn’t it true that American leaders of both major parties have treated the island and its people in similar ways?

One of the things that I tried to do in one section of the book about the imposition of PROMESA [the 2016 Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act] is talk about how a lot of Democratic senators voted to shut down the discussions about different ways that the law could be written. It was pretty extraordinary that there was a bipartisan bill like that that passed at a time when almost nothing significant was being passed in the US Congress. So a lot of Democratic senators, like Charles Schumer, could be seen as people who really just felt like there was no reason to try to find different ways of resolving the problem without implementing this fiscal oversight management board.

The difference with Trump is that he’s overt in his name calling and racist criticisms, and but that’s part of his whole political schtick. So that enrages people yes, but it distracts from the general lack of concern that the US Congress has about Puerto Rico. The US Congress is really in charge of Puerto Rico, not the president. It’s really sad: when I’m back in Puerto Rico, you see these headlines in El Nuevo Dia talking about ‘Puerto Rico asuntos (affairs) are going to come up today in the House Committee,’ and there’s absolutely no reporting on it in Washington and very little comes out of it. Really, it’s sad, because people there do open their eyes when they hear about any little thing that is going to happen in the House Resources Committee and they don’t really have any idea of how completely insignificant it is in American political discourse.

You spend a lot of time in the book walking readers through the evolution of political parties on the island, and how they formed largely around the approach to addressing Puerto Rico’s status with the US. How has the debt crisis and Hurricane Maria changed that?

Both PROMESA and the hurricane together have created a possibility of a shift in Puerto Rican politics, because the first thing that happened with PROMESA is because of those Supreme Court cases, that said, pretty much in black and white that Puerto Rico does not have a special semi-autonomous relationship with the United States, which is something that the Commonwealth party had really based itself on since the inception of the the constitutional era, the Commonwealth era. It really took a lot of steam out of the Commonwealth party as a viable political party. Then the #RickyRenuncia part of it has also shed a negative light on the statehood party. Statehood was already kind of a pipe dream, because Republicans in Congress had never supported it and Republicans are still controlling the Senate.

A lot of the rhetoric during the #RickyRenuncia protests was that both of the parties were becoming rapidly becoming obsolete. The elections in 2016 came a few months after Congress voted in PROMESA and everybody knew there would be an oversight board, and you had a number of independent candidates that garnered close to 20% of the vote. So already you had this viable idea of third party candidates that were not from the Independence Party, and I think that that really continues now.

I’ve written a little bit about the Victoria Ciudadana (Citizens Victory), which I think is a really important movement. We have to see whether they call for some kind of constitutional assembly to present new status options that could be brought directly to Congress and not through the traditional parties, or propose viable political stances that voters might prefer over the statehood or the commonwealth party. The commonwealth party is really in crisis. So there’s a lot of flux. In the 2020 elections, maybe it’ll be Carmen Yulín herself, who will move the party in a different direction. Or it could be one of these alternative candidates coming out of this movement from Victoria Ciudadana.

Your deep dive into the dynamic and evolving political context on the island makes me think about the perhaps well-meaning refrain from the political left on the mainland that suggests that statehood is the only option going forward. Some say that’s just another example of colonizers dictating next steps to the colonized. How do you see it?

I’m sure a lot of that is as well meaning because when you take the whole colonialism thing out of the equation it seems like “Oh, well, this is a great thing to do, because it is Puerto Ricans’ full constitutional rights and representation and full entitlement, and they can no longer be discriminated against in the way that they have been.” But they don’t take into account that there’s a very strong national culture in Puerto Rico. And there are many Puerto Ricans who don’t necessarily want to become part of the United States for cultural reasons, or other people who just actually feel naturally that they don’t want to be associated with a country that has colonized them for 120 years. So that’s all in play.

I do write about a little bit about the radical statement proposal 20 years ago—which was really kind of interesting, and perhaps too idealistic—which proposed that progressive Puerto Ricans take control of the statehood movement from the sort of Republican-esque or regressive elements that currently run it. Their argument was that since globalization has made nationalism less important, and an independent Puerto Rico would have a difficult time surviving the cut-throat, global capitalist world, that maybe the best thing would be to assert Puerto Rico’s rights as a multicultural Spanish speaking state and become part of this vanguard of recognizing multiculturalism and bilingualism in the United States, and make alliances with all of the forward-thinking people who are concentrated in the cities who believe in multiculturalism and bilingualism and become part of an avant garde that would lead the United States into a more progressive future. But that was really strongly criticized because of this really strong nationalist feeling.

So one thing that was really positive about #RickyRenuncia thing, which I wrote about in The Nation, was that I think it represents this new kind of intersection of nationalism that I think the radical statehood movement was envisioning, but not wanting to be a state, wanting to critique the problems with Puerto Rican nationalism, which in the past have been a lot of patriarchal attitudes and homophobia, and lack of intersection with global interests. So this kind of new nationalism has come about which I find very exciting and interesting, and really could be something that I think progressive movements in the United States and other parts of the world could look at as a kind of, if not a model, at least an inspiration.

When Choice is 221 Miles Away: The Nightmare of Getting an Abortion in the South

“I would drink bleach right now.”

Kate shakes her head, and her long, sun-streaked brown hair, piled high in a messy bun, shivers. “That’s so bad, and I don’t mean it,” she quickly adds.

She’s exhausted; shadowy crescents frame her bright eyes. Just a few weeks ago, she graduated from the University of Mississippi. “My one goal, as pathetic as it sounds, was do not walk across that stage pregnant,” she says. “Everything I worked for…I’m going to remember graduating and being pregnant.” Kate has been trying to get an abortion since March. It’s a Friday evening at the end of May, and she was just turned away from an Arkansas clinic, about 200 miles from home.

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In the morning, she’ll have to go back home to Oxford, Mississippi, where she’ll wait yet another week, and return to the clinic in Little Rock for the third and hopefully final time.

Her day began at 3 a.m., with a text from Laurie Bertram Roberts. Roberts helms the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, the nonprofit that was helping Kate get her abortion. Around 7:45 a.m., a white medical transport van arrived at her apartment, and Kate climbed in to join two of Roberts’ daughters, Sarah and Aolani, as well as Roberts’ partner, who was driving but did not want to be named. The crew journeyed northwest, through Mississippi, then Tennessee, then Arkansas. Traffic on the interstate slowed them down; by the time they made it for her 10:45 a.m. appointment, it was nearly noon.

Kate at home.

 

Tired and dusty—the van’s air conditioning was broken, so the windows stayed down—the foursome stepped out into the humid Arkansas air. About 15 protesters hemmed in the clinic, and Kate kept her head down as a man bellowed that God would not judge her, if only she would turn around. Another protester, a woman with an infant, shrieked that Kate should carry to term and give the baby to her. It was that image—the baby nestled in the stroller, in the edge-of-June heat—that Kate says was seared into her mind the rest of the day.

After rushing into the clinic cocooned by her companions, Kate faced the metal detector, putting her wallet in a dish. The strict security was jarring the first time she visited, even though it’s pretty typical in clinics. Still, she couldn’t bring herself to unclasp the vintage necklace she almost never takes off; she breathed a sigh of relief when it didn’t trigger the alarm. Her cellphone was left in the van—another security measure, meant to protect patient privacy and stymie anti-abortion activists who pose as patients and film inside clinics—making her feel even more alone. She hadn’t told her mother, who was battling a serious illness, about her pregnancy, or her new boyfriend. Just about everyone she had told was in the clinic with her.

Kate’s memory of the rest of the appointment is blurry. She remembers some complication with payment and a sharp admonishment from an administrator about her tardiness, which brought forth the tears she had successfully held in until then. Called back to the exam room, she was relieved to see her favorite clinic staffer there. At a prior appointment, the staffer had made Kate feel comfortable and reassured. But now, performing the ultrasound, the energetic, warm woman grew quiet. “What’s wrong?” Kate demanded, her body tightening with fear.

Early morning in Mississippi.

“Oh, things are just going to go a little differently today,” the staffer replied, trying to keep her tone light. Kate clenched her jaw against the rising bile in her throat.

The ultrasound was showing the fetus at 20 weeks, but Kate’s appointment was for someone who was 18 weeks along. That meant Kate couldn’t get her abortion. The extra two weeks triggered a 48-hour waiting period and state-mandated counseling about fetal pain—a concept that’s been widely debunked for more than a decade. She would have to make the journey all over again for an appointment next week. That would be her final chance to get the procedure in Little Rock; abortions after 22 weeks are illegal in the state. It was already too late to get one in Mississippi, where abortion is not available after 16 weeks.

As a nurse explained the situation and began the required monologue about fetal pain, Kate’s eyes filled with bright white light, and she gagged.

I first meet Kate, a pseudonym to protect her identity, by the pool at a Little Rock hotel a few hours after she was turned away by the clinic. Her fingertips are stained bright orange-red, courtesy of a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and she is wearing the summertime uniform of college girls in the South—oversize T-shirt, athletic shorts, sandals. She greets me with a warm familiarity and says she hopes I can explain what just happened to her, because she has been too afraid to Google much of anything.

Kate tells me repeatedly that she’s passionate about helping people. She wants kids someday, with the right person. The man who impregnated her is not that. They were only sexual the one time; she had been drinking and she doesn’t remember how they ended up at her apartment that night. When she told him she was pregnant and that she wanted an abortion, he said it was her choice.

Kate worried she would be judged if she went to the clinic in Jackson—the only one in the state. “Ole Miss is apparently the most liberal area in Mississippi, and it is not open-minded,” she says. It took her some time to find an alternative, sifting through search results for crisis pregnancy centers—anti-abortion establishments that aim to convince women to carry to term based on religious conviction. She called a legitimate abortion clinic in Memphis, but the receptionist sounded overwhelmed, and it made Kate’s anxiety swell. Finally, she made an appointment in Little Rock for early March.

The man who impregnated her drove her to the clinic that day, and he promised to pay for her procedure, Kate says. They were in the car by 4 a.m.; Kate wanted an early appointment so she could make it back in time for a night class. She was later surprised when the clinic asked for payment upon her next visit. Apparently, the man declined to pay for the appointment while she was in the exam room.

He later asked Kate to keep the baby and give it to him. She refused. The morning of her third appointment, she found her tires slashed. That’s when she decided she needed help. That’s when she found Laurie.

Laurie Bertram Roberts’ life is chaotic. A 41-year-old woman with seven children, she lives below the poverty line. Her family cobbles together a modest life with the help of food stamps, government assistance, and the odd jobs they do to survive. Roberts spends much of her time bedbound due to painful fibromyalgia, but her phone and laptop are never far, basically operating as digital appendages. As a co-founder and the executive director of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, the only abortion fund in the state, Roberts has run an organization for the past six years that’s neither seamless nor neatly organized, but it is powerful. Its budget grew to $110,000 this year and it helps at least 10 or so individuals each month get abortions, sometimes smuggling those in abusive relationships out of their homes for the procedure.

Laurie Bertram Roberts, co-founder of Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund orders books for their lending library while recovering from a sinus infection. 

The fund doesn’t just pay for abortions and coordinate logistics. Roberts, a woman of color, is a true believer in the reproductive justice framework—a term coined by a group of black women in the ’90s, detailing, as their organization now puts it, the “human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” The Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund helps women pay for health care, diapers, food, contraception—wherever there’s a need, the fund will fill it. Roberts delightedly shows me several boxes of Barbies, in every shape, size, and color, that she purchased for a playroom for her clients’ children. “No one comes to us just needing one thing. Needing abortion funding is usually one part of their greater struggle of being a low-income person,” she says.

“I don’t think [outsiders] understand that the structural barriers are at every turn of care, that it starts before people even have sex,” Roberts says.

When I visit the house in West Jackson where Roberts lives and eventually plans to host clients overnight, it is teeming with activity. The one-story “fundshack,” as she and her family call it, is modest, with a front porch framed by lacy white iron posts, shot through with rust, and bars clamped protectively over the windows. Roberts’ daughters Kayla, Sarah, and Aolani—who grew up with social justice at the center of their lives the way most kids here grow up with religion—drift in and out, as do local activists from youth empowerment and LGBTQ organizations. An unexpected donation of several mattresses is delivered, while fund volunteers intermittently pop into the room where Roberts sits in bed, chatting with me, her lower half wrapped in a blue sheet. Roofers work in the hot sun to replace the worn-down shingles. Roberts tells me it took her a few tries to find a reliable crew who didn’t mind working for a group that funds abortion care and were willing to work in a poor “black” part of town. She seems to have hit it off with these guys. A day or two prior, the subject of condoms came up when she was talking with them, as it tends to around Roberts, and soon enough she was using a wooden penis to demonstrate how to properly put one on. She says the men left that day with a generous bag of free condoms.

“I’m very plainspoken about sex,” she says, shrugging.

Roberts is actually plainspoken about almost everything—she doesn’t much care for bullshit, and she’s not afraid to let you know it. She knows firsthand there are worse things than appearing abrasive: like being denied an abortion when your back is against a wall. Like nearly dying in a Catholic hospital because the doctor is more interested in saving the fetus than the woman with children at home. Like being a low-income woman of color in a state with a long record of denying the humanity of those who look like you. All of these factors, all this personal history, contribute to why she’s doing this work and why it is messy and frenzied—such is the life of someone who lives with the odds stacked against them, and such are the lives of those who come to her for help.

The Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund in Jackson, Mississippi.

“We’re all poor women and femmes and people of color, for the most part. We have a couple of low-income queer white folks working for us,” she says. “To be part of our leadership, you have to be a low-income or working-class person, period. We’re not apologetic about that at all, and we’re unapologetically black as fuck. You can either rock with it or kick rocks, we don’t care.”

That’s a revolutionary attitude for Mississippi, the state with the second-highest poverty rate in the nation, where, in many ways, post-Roe America is already a reality. In a study of 47 states there were 11.8 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age in 2015, but in Mississippi there were just 7.8. Even so, a year earlier an estimated 47 percent of all pregnancies in the state were unintended, while nationally it was 41 percent. Also, in 2017, Mississippi’s birthrate among 15- to 19-year-olds was 65 percent higher than the national average.

In recent years, the state has twice attempted to place a severe gestational limit on abortion—first, a 2018 law that would have banned abortions after 15 weeks, and this past May, another law that would have banned abortions after six weeks. The measures were signed by Gov. Phil Bryant, who famously said his “goal is to end abortion” in Mississippi, but a federal judge struck down or blocked the laws.

The Jackson clinic’s capacity has been slowly whittled down by an onslaught of legislative attacks—it’s now only open three days a week. It is required to meet the onerous standards of an ambulatory surgical center. The state mandates every patient undergo medically inaccurate counseling and be subjected to an ultrasound and a 24-hour waiting period, which means two separate trips to the clinic. Nearly half of Mississippians seeking abortion care travel out of state to get it, but even then, its neighbors in the Bible Belt aren’t much better off. While Tennessee has seven clinics operating as of recently, Alabama and Louisiana have just three each, and Arkansas was down to two this summer. These states feature a patchwork of Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws, policies aimed at limiting access to abortion care through seemingly harmless provisions about hallway widths or expensive medical equipment unnecessary to abortion.

Low-income women suffer the most in the state’s abortion desert, making Roberts’ job all the more crucial. According to 2017 data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than 1 in 10 women in Mississippi receive health care coverage through Medicaid and likely can’t afford to pay for an abortion or nonemergency contraception on their own. In 2016, the state health department closed nine clinics; the following year, two-thirds of the department’s regional offices were shuttered due to a series of budget cuts. According to Roberts, some women she knows who rely on Medicaid have had to wait up to six months to get birth control. The state has a single Planned Parenthood, in Hattiesburg, that distributes birth control but does not provide abortion care—which, according to Barbara Ann Luttrell, director of communications for Planned Parenthood Southeast, “is because the state of Mississippi intentionally has made it next to impossible to be an abortion provider.” Planned Parenthood Southeast is also one of the most under-resourced affiliates in the country.

Aolani Jefferson outside the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund.

Sarah Roberts, abortion doula and daughter of Laurie Bertram Roberts, at the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund.

“I don’t think [outsiders] understand that the structural barriers are at every turn of care, that it starts before people even have sex,” Roberts says.

Roberts wishes her fund could overcome some of these obstacles by helping women like Kate manage their own abortions at home, in peace—largely with medication abortion. She sees misoprostol and mifepristone as equalizers for anyone seeking an abortion, particularly rural women who live hundreds of miles from a clinic. But in Mississippi and 33 other states, it is a crime to use medication to induce an abortion if that medication is not administered by a licensed clinician. Mississippi also bans the use of telemedicine, in which doctors see a patient remotely, despite a 2017 study finding that telemedicine is as safe as an in-person doctor visit for medication abortion.

Above all, Roberts fears what seems like the next big battle in the war on abortion: criminalizing women by giving fetuses the same rights as people. This is already happening, most frequently when pregnant women use drugs. While Mississippi doesn’t have a law that criminalizes drug use while pregnant, prosecutors in at least one county, Jones County, have fashioned a loophole through which approximately 20 women have been charged under a “felonious child abuse statute”—reasoning that if a woman uses drugs, she is poisoning the fetus, and therefore is criminally liable. Roberts has put up bail for one woman who was jailed under the statute. “I knew Jones County was bad when we called the bail bondswoman to get her out, and the bail bondsperson told me, ‘I’m so glad y’all are helping her, because I have so many women that I bail out every year in her same situation and it’s horrible, it’s ridiculous, and someone needs to stop it,’” Roberts says, laughing darkly. “Bail bondspeople aren’t usually on the side of the people they’re bailing out.” Roberts also got involved in a widely publicized case in Alabama, in which a black woman named Marshae Jones was charged with manslaughter when she was shot in the stomach while pregnant. Though the charges were ultimately dropped, Roberts helped a local abortion fund raise money to pay Jones’ bail and hire a lawyer.

Despite this excruciating landscape, Roberts is proud that Mississippi is where she came into her own—it’s where she fled her abusive partner when she was 27; it’s where she went to college; it’s where she raised her kids. It’s where she grew into a hellraising activist, surrounded by other activists, many of whom had a history in the civil rights movement. It was the first place in her life where she found herself in a majority-black space. “I generally talk about Mississippi being the Broadway of activism,” she tells me. “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”

Kate spends most of the journey home from Little Rock curled up on the floor of the van. She hadn’t been sleeping much since she found out she was pregnant a few months ago, and last night was no better. After lunch, Sarah and Aolani stop at a Walmart for a thin foam mattress pad and a cheap tie-dye blanket to make a bed for Kate. As the van hurtles down the interstate, Roberts’ partner behind the wheel chugs energy drinks, slinging expletives out the window every so often at other motorists. Air roars through the open windows, and a vent in the top of the van clatters, making it impossible to talk much. Kate quietly lies there, occasionally picking up her phone only to set it back down. Sweat has pasted her two-sizes-too-big T-shirt to her back, and the folds of the blanket have left creases on her legs. Sarah passes her phone around every so often to share an amusing Tumblr meme. Kate humors Sarah, but her smile hardens into more of a grimace.

“I can’t believe I have to do this all over again in a week,” Kate mumbles as we wait to use the restroom in a grimy gas station near the Tennessee state line. She is eager to see her dog, who has been her devoted companion throughout this ordeal, sleeping in the bathtub on nights when Kate was too sick to move from the toilet. When we pull into her apartment’s parking lot, she tries to quickly exit the van but has to wait for a nosy neighbor to go inside. “Let us know if you need to talk,” Sarah calls after Kate.

As I watch Kate hurry away, I wonder if she’ll be able to steel herself to repeat the trip. I would have understood if she couldn’t; she had pushed through a series of grueling obstacles only to be met with still more. But less than a week later, on a rainy Thursday morning, the group began the process all over again. This time, Kate got her abortion. If she had waited even a few days longer, she would have been rendered ineligible for the procedure, which would have meant a journey to Florida or Colorado. What’s more, if she had started this arduous process just a few weeks later, she might not have been eligible for an abortion in Arkansas at 20 weeks. This year, legislators passed a law banning abortions past 18 weeks there, shaving four more weeks off the window for the procedure, but its opponents sued the state and a federal judge has temporarily blocked it from going into effect.

When we speak a few days after the abortion, Kate sounds lighter. She says she finally feels calm and ready to move forward. She’s considering a couple of internship options, one of which would take her out of Mississippi altogether. “When I got into my apartment, I literally just laid down with [my dog], and finally, I felt like I had a sense of control again.”

The sun rises on a church in Oxford, Mississippi.

Coldwater, Mississippi.

 

This story is part of our post-Roe issue, in which we examine an America without the right to an abortion by looking at areas where that is already a reality. Be sure to read our essay on how the fight for Roe is already affecting abortion access, and our investigation into the consequences of state laws that ban abortion without exceptions for rape.

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