Mother Jones Magazine

Democrats Should Move Slowly on Impeachment

Should Democrats move fast or slow on impeachment? I say slow. For one thing, new evidence is pouring out like a fire hose right now, and we should keep the investigation going until we have as good a picture as we can get of what really happened. Politically, it’s also the best thing to do. Republicans want a fast impeachment so they can brush it off as a partisan stunt and get on with business. Democrats should want just the opposite. They need to treat it seriously, and they need time to build up public support as new revelations are unearthed. Until we get to the point where a third or so of Republicans support impeachment, there’s not much point in voting on articles in the House.

Will this interfere with campaigning? I doubt it. Will it prevent the House from working on other things? Nope. They’ve produced plenty of legislation and all of it goes straight into Mitch McConnell’s round file. So no worries there.

Keep up the committee work until there’s a rock-solid case with good public support. That’s when to stop, and not a moment before.

How an Indicted Oligarch Became a Key Player in Trump’s Ukraine Scandal

On September 29, Rudy Giuliani appeared on ABC News, waving a fistful of papers. The document in his hand was an affidavit from Viktor Shokin, a former top Ukrainian prosecutor who was fired in 2016 under international pressure due to his failure to combat corruption. Giuliani asserted that the affidavit supported his debunked claim that former Vice President Joe Biden had forced Shokin’s ouster to prevent Shokin from investigating a company tied to Biden’s son. But it did no such thing; the statement merely repeated an unproven allegation without backing it up. The affidavit, though, was evidence that President Donald Trump’s effort to smear his political rival has overlapped with the interests of Dmytro Firtash—a Kremlin-connected oligarch with purported ties to Russian organized crime.

Trump’s effort to smear Biden has overlapped with the interests of Dmytro Firtash—a Kremlin-connected oligarch with purported ties to Russian organized crime.

What Giuliani neglected to mention on ABC that day was that this affidavit was filed in an Austrian court by lawyers for Firtash, a Ukrainian tycoon who has for years been fighting extradition to the United States, where he faces federal bribery charges. In this document, Shokin also claimed that in late 2015 Biden took steps to prevent Firtash from returning to Ukraine from Austria. This claim—for which no evidence was presented—appeared intended to support Firtash’s argument that he has been the target of a politically motivated prosecution by the US Justice Department. In other words, Shokin’s affidavit, notarized on September 4, 2019, served the interests of both Firtash and Giuliani’s client, Trump.

The affidavit filed to help Firtash—and Giuliani’s use of it to try to help Trump—is just one of several indications that the Trump-Giuliani crusade to squeeze political dirt out of Ukraine has intersected with the world of an oligarch on the run from US justice.

Firtash has hired lawyers with close ties to Trump’s defense team, and he has retained Mark Corallo, who worked as a spokesman for Trump’s attorneys during special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. But much of the cross-over involves Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who last week were arrested on campaign finance charges, including the allegation that they made secret donations to influence US policy on behalf of one or more Ukrainian government officials.

Parnas and Fruman were business associates of Giuliani. In addition, Giuliani has said that beginning in late 2018, these two men helped him pursue information in Ukraine that could benefit Trump. They connected Giuliani with former Ukrainian officials who alleged Biden had helped force out Shokin to stop him from investigating Burisma, the gas company connected to Biden’s son. Giuliani admitted this week that he was paid $500,000 by a company controlled by Parnas for what Giuliani claims was business and legal advice in 2018 and 2019.

At the same time Parnas and Fruman were collaborating with Giuliani, Firtash also was reportedly paying Parnas and Fruman. The duo gave the impression they were working with the oligarch when they attempted last year to force the replacement of the head of Ukraine’s national gas company and when they helped to cause the removal of US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, according to people familiar with their efforts. In a text exchange with Mother Jones last week, Giuliani said, “I have nothing to do with Firtash.”

Overlapping legal interests

Firtash is a controversial figure in Ukraine. He made a fortune—which Forbes in 2014 estimated at $500 million—by working with Russia’s Gazprom. The state-run natural gas giant gave Firtash a role as its partner in a business shipping gas from Russia to Ukraine. In 2010, Firtash was a key backer of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian leader accused of massive corruption. (Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chair now serving a seven-and-a-half-year sentence in prison, was a top consultant for Yanukovych.)

In 2014, shortly after Yanukovych fled Ukraine during the Maidan revolution, US prosecutors in Chicago indicted Firtash for allegedly bribing Indian government officials to secure a contract to sell titanium to Boeing. He once told the US ambassador in Kiev that years earlier he had to obtain the approval of Semion Mogilevich, an alleged Russian mobster, for his initial business endeavors. The Justice Department in 2017 called Firtash an “upper-echelon [associate] of Russian organized crime,” an allegation he denies. In June, a US federal judge cleared the way for Firtash to face charges in Chicago. But he is fighting extradition from Austria, where he has been been under house arrest since 2014, arguing in court there that he was targeted for prosecution by US officials for political reasons.  

This summer, Firtash hired Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing, a husband-and-wife legal team known for championing Republican causes and defending Trump on Fox News. A year earlier, diGenova and Toensing had agreed to join Trump’s defense team, but that arrangement was scuttled due to conflicts of interest caused by the couple’s prior work for other clients involved in the Trump-Russia scandal. Toensing has also worked with Giuliani to find dirt on the Bidens in Ukraine. She planned to join the former New York City mayor on a trip to Kiev in May, during which they hoped to gather more negative information about Trump’s Democratic rival. They canceled the trip after the New York Times reported those plans.

Shortly after Firtash hired diGenova and Toensing, his legal team fired a shot that jointly targeted a Trump enemy and a Firtash foe. They submitted a brief to an Austrian court arguing that an effort by Mueller deputy Andrew Weissmann to convince Firtash to cooperate with the Russia probe demonstrated that the Justice Department’s case against Firtash was politically motivated.

A natural gas “shakedown”

Firtash’s interests intersect with the Trump-Ukraine scandal in other ways, as well. Reuters reported last week that since at least early 2018, Firtash has employed Parnas and Fruman. A source familiar with the two men’s actions told Mother Jones that, earlier this year, they “told people that Firtash was paying them.” Toensing has called claims that Firtash was in business with Parnas and Fruman “a crock,” though she says she hired Parnas this summer to work on Firtash’s defense team as an interpreter.

As Parnas and Fruman helped Giuliani do opposition research for Trump, they were also pursuing a lucrative natural gas deal involving Naftogaz, Ukraine’s state-run oil and gas company. At an energy conference in Houston in March, Parnas and Fruman—accompanied by Harry Sargeant III, a billionaire oil magnate who lives in Florida—met with Andrew Favorov, a top deputy to Naftogaz CEO Andriy Kobolyev. As the AP first reported, Parnas and Fruman pressed Favorov to agree to a plan in which they would help him replace Kobolyev as Naftogaz’s chief. Parnas and Fruman hoped to then partner with Favorov on a scheme to export up to 100 tankers per year of US liquified gas to Naftogaz, which is eager to reduce its reliance on Russian gas. Favorov reportedly rejected this proposal, which he perceived as “a shakedown,” the AP story said.

During this meeting, Parnas and Fruman gave the impression that they were working with Firtash, according to Dale Perry, an American gas executive who does business in Ukraine. Perry tells Mother Jones that Parnas and Fruman informed Favorov that they wanted Naftogaz to pay Firtash $200 million he claims the company owes him. Perry, who did not attend the meeting but spoke to Favorov shortly after it occurred, says he memorialized Favorov’s account in a document he sent to State Department officials. 

According to Perry, Parnas also told Favorov that Yovanovitch, the US ambassador to Ukraine, would be fired within months. Yovanovitch was a vocal supporter of Kobolyev due to his reputation for opposing corruption; her removal could have cleared a significant road block in the campaign to oust Kobolyev. Yovanovitch had also backed Kobolyev in a dispute pitting Naftogaz against Firtash, in which Kobolyev claimed Firtash’s firms had illegally pocketed up to $2 billion since 2017 by stiffing the state-owned company on payments.

Parnas and Fruman “couldn’t get rid of Kobolyev because of the strong support that he enjoyed from the ambassador,” explains Perry. “So they [thought], We need to get the ambassador removed.”

Around that time, Parnas and Fruman were peddling unsubstantiated claims that Yovanovitch had privately denigrated Trump. Giuliani pushed other allegations about Yovanovitch to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. These attacks helped cause Trump to force Yovanovitch’s early removal from her post in May. 

Parnas and Fruman were arrested at Dulles Airport in Virginia on October 9. Both had one-way tickets to Vienna. Giuliani, meanwhile, revealed to reporters that he had intended to travel to Vienna the next day, sparking speculation that the travel plans of all three men were somehow related to Firtash. Giuliani told NBC News he “wasn’t planning to go see” Firtash in Vienna. John Dowd, a former lawyer for Trump who now represents Parnas and Fruman, did not respond to requests for comment.

The overlap between Parnas and Fruman’s business activities, their dirt-digging with Giuliani, and their interactions with Firtash raises questions about the true scope of the Trump-Ukraine scandal—a story that has grown far beyond the initial controversy over a phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president. Is it possible that Firtash’s case, Parnas and Fruman’s plotting, and Giuliani’s freelancing in Ukraine are intertwined? Asked by phone whether Firtash hoped to win favor with Trump and his Justice Department by helping to undermine the president’s critics, Toensing declined to comment on the record and abruptly hung up.

“But How Are You Going to Pay For It?”

How much would Medicare for All cost? Let’s take a horseback guess.

  • CMS estimates total health care spending in 2018 of $3.6 trillion.
  • About 55 percent, or $2 trillion, is covered by private sources, mainly corporations. The rest is already paid for by state and federal governments.
  • Of this, perhaps 20 percent would be paid by individuals in the form of copays. This is about the average for health care plans in other countries.
  • The total outlay for employers is therefore $1.6 trillion.
  • Approximately 112 million people are currently employed in large corporations.
  • So 112 million people have to pay $1.6 trillion. That’s $14,000 per person. Currently, large corporations pay about $10,000 per employee in health care costs.

There are several options left to us here:

  • We could make large corporations pay $14,000 per employee. They’d just have to suck it up.
  • We could keep them at their current rate of $10,000 and raise the $400 billion elsewhere, perhaps from some combination of higher taxes on the wealthy and a small VAT.
  • We could make all but the very smallest employers pay a head tax. With a larger tax base, the cost per employee drops to $11,500 and there’s very little to make up.

This is rough, but it’s the basic lay of the land if we’re willing to make corporations continue to pay for health care at the same rate they pay now. They’d have no real beef since it would cost them nothing more and would free them from the overhead cost and hassle of dealing with health care. There’s also a strong chance that the head tax would rise more slowly than does now, since government-run health programs almost invariably cap cost growth better than the private sector.

This is a slightly more detailed version of my post the other day asking, yet again, why Democrats don’t propose this as the funding mechanism for M4A. Other countries do this without a problem, and there’s no special reason we can’t do it too. It certainly makes it far easier to provide a cogent and popular answer when reporters ask, “But how are you going to pay for it?”

Here’s How Mitch McConnell Could Sabotage an Impeachment Trial

At a lunchtime gathering of Senate Republicans on Wednesday, Mitch McConnell had some news to share about impeachment: Should the House Democrats vote to impeach Donald Trump by Thanksgiving—which appears to be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s preferred though perhaps hard-to-meet schedule—the Senate could start and quickly conduct the trial of Trump and wrap it up by Christmas. That, too, might seem an overly ambitious timeline. Action in Congress rarely occurs speedily. But one X-factor in the impeachment process—which so far has received little attention—is that Senate rules afford McConnell and the Republicans plenty of opportunity to derail an impeachment trial and turn the proceedings into a sham.

When House Democrats began raising the volume on impeachment talk earlier this year—especially after the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, which detailed various alleged obstructions of justice committed by Trump—an idea was kicked around by pundits and commentators: What if the House approved articles of impeachment and McConnell refused to hold a trial? Two weeks ago, though, McConnell publicly noted that in the event of a House impeachment, Senate rules would compel the upper body of Congress to stick to the Constitution and put Trump on trial. But what sort of a trial might that be, if the Republican Senate majority did not truly want to mount one? Last time Congress went through an impeachment, both chambers were controlled by the same party. After House Republicans in 1998 enthusiastically approved two articles of impeachment accusing Clinton of lying to a grand jury and obstructing justice in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The matter was sent to the Senate, which was also in the hands of Republicans, most of whom supported the impeachment (and conviction) of Clinton.

McConnell is renowned for his wily mastering of Senate rules—and for his willingness to bust norms for political gain. Though he has recognized the duty of the Senate to address—and not ignore—articles of impeachment, he may well have a trick or two in mind about how to conduct the trial.

This time, House Dems will be delivering articles of impeachment to a Senate controlled by a party loyal to Trump and hostile to the prospect of booting him out of office. So how committed will McConnell and his comrades be to staging a thorough and fair proceeding? Could they rig it in Trump’s favor? Given the Senate rules, they could try.

Any impeachment trial is governed by the Rules of Procedure and Practice in the Senate When Sitting on Impeachment Trials, which was last revised in 1986. These rules dictate the ins and outs of a trial to a great degree of specificity. They note that as soon as House impeachment articles are “presented to the Senate, the Senate shall, at 1 o’clock [on the] afternoon of the day (Sunday excepted) following such presentation, or sooner if ordered, by the Senate, proceed to the consideration of such articles.” The rules cite the precise proclamation the Sergeant at Arms must make once House manager of the impeachment appear in the Senate to present the articles of impeachment. They note how the chief justice of the Supreme Court must be told that he or she is to preside over a presidential impeachment and how an impeached official must be notified of his or her impeachment. (One method: leave “such copy at the last known place of abode of such person.”) And so on. 

These rules do include provisions that could be abused by a party that controls the Senate to jigger the proceedings. During a trial, they say, the Senate can “make all lawful orders, rules, and regulations which it may deem essential or conducive to the ends of justice.” This reads like a blank check for mischief. A Senate majority possibly could vote to limit testimony or witnesses. Perhaps it could impose a time limit on the proceedings that would prevent a full airing of the case against Trump.

But isn’t the chief justice in charge? (Put aside the question of his possible bias for a moment.) The rules say he is, but on some matters he can be trumped by the party in control. They state that the chief justice “may rule on all questions of evidence including, but not limited to questions of relevancy, materiality, and redundancy of evidence and incidental questions, which ruling shall stand as the judgment of the Senate, unless some Member of the Senate shall ask that a formal vote be taken thereon, in which case it shall be submitted to the Senate for decision without debate.” (Emphasis added.) So if there is a debate over the introduction of a certain piece of evidence—say, Trump’s legal team raises an objection—the chief justice decides. Unless the Senate Republicans vote to overturn his ruling. The final say will go to the GOP. 

The rules also allow the Republicans to keep much of the proceedings out of the public eye. Either the chief justice or a majority of the Senate can order that a committee of senators be established to “receive evidence and take testimony at such times and places as the committee may determine.” That can be done behind closed doors—though such a committee must subsequently provide the full Senate “a certified copy of the transcript of the proceedings and testimony.” The rules note that nothing prevents the Senate from “having the entire trial in open Senate.” But clearly a majority of Republicans could vote to conduct the trial in secrecy. (Most of the Clinton impeachment trial was public, but deliberations over the calling of witnesses and depositions taken of key witnesses were conducted privately. A bipartisan majority of senators voted to use excerpts from the videoed depositions instead of live witness testimony.) 

The rules also note that the deliberations of the senators—the debate over whether Trump should be convicted or not—could also be kept from the public. The Senate has the right to “direct the doors to be closed while deliberating upon its decisions.” 

At the GOP luncheon, McConnell told his Republican colleagues that a motion to dismiss the charges in a Trump impeachment trial—an idea floated by some Trump defenders as a way to short-circuit and quickly end the proceedings—would be determined by Chief Justice John Roberts. But the rules provide McConnell and his Republican majority latitude in other ways.

An impeachment trial is not straightforward business. The rules are not as well-established as those that cover federal trials. Important procedural questions can be presented to the chief justice. But the Senate rules essentially give the Senate the ability to reject key rulings of the presiding judge. McConnell is renowned for his wily mastering of Senate rules—and for his willingness to bust norms for political gain. (See Merrick Garland.) Though he has recognized the duty of the Senate to address—and not ignore—articles of impeachment, he may well have a trick or two in mind about how to conduct the trial—especially if he is bent on disposing of this controversy in a fast manner during holiday season. McConnell’s entire political career offers cause to suspect that his loyalty will be to a partisan outcome, not a fair process. And the rules of the Senate do not guarantee an impeachment trial will be free of McConnell shenanigans. 

How We Talk About Disability Keeps Changing—for the Better

One of the standout essays in About Us, a collection of essays about disability, first published in the New York Times, is starkly titled “The Nazis’ First Victims Were the Disabled.” Many of the killing methods used in the Holocaust were first tested on about 300,000 people with disabilities as part of Nazi Germany’s “Aktion T4” project. People with disabilities were depicted as “useless eaters” whose lives were “unworthy of living” in propaganda such as the 1941 film Ich Klage An (I Accuse), about a doctor who kills (“redeems”) his wife after she’s diagnosed with a debilitating disease.

“Why is it important to know this history?” asks the essay’s author, the memoirist Kenny Fries, before touching the third rail of historical comparisons: “We often say what happened in Nazi Germany couldn’t happen here. But some of it, like the mistreatment and sterilization of the disabled, did happen here.” Fries cites the 1927 Supreme Court ruling that authorized the compulsory sterilization of so-called “mental defectives” to, in the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” (This decision has never been overturned.) Fries also calls out so-called “ugly laws,” which criminalized anyone appearing in public who was “diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed,” in the words of one Chicago ordinance that wasn’t repealed until 1974.

There is a long history of dehumanizing language facilitating dehumanizing behavior toward people with disabilities in the United States. But how we talk about disability is changing as people with disabilities assert their rights as the country’s largest minority group: 26 percent of Americans have a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control. This number encompasses a wide range of conditions often invisible to coworkers and classmates, like severe depression and anxiety. More than one third of this group identify as swing voters, and more than 70 percent said it “really matters” who won the 2016 election, compared with just 59 percent of voters who did not report having a disability.

Plenty of politicians still ignore and disdain people with disabilities, though not always as openly as Donald Trump’s mockery of a New York Times reporter with a congenital joint condition in 2016—which voters said enraged them more than anything else Trump had said or done until then. The bar is slightly higher for Democrats, and several presidential candidates have introduced policies to help people with disabilities: Sen. Elizabeth Warren introduced loan-relief legislation for students with severe disabilities. Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker co-sponsored the Disability Integration Act to force health care companies to offer long-term services to people with disabilities.

If some candidates are paying lip service, is it the right lip service? Three times in the most recent Democratic debate, Warren resume-checked her years as “a special needs teacher.” Immediately after the debate, a disability advocate emailed one of my colleagues to criticize Warren for “inadvertently harming the disabled community” by using a term that “is not only outdated, but harmful.”

The term “special needs” took hold in the early 20th century as a well-intentioned switch from “handicapped,” itself a loaded term that originally referred to racehorses. (“Handicap” derives from “hand in cap,” describing people who reached a hand into a cap that held the bets at racetracks.) “Handicapped” had replaced “crippled,” first used in the 1300s, one in a long cycle of disparaging labels like “invalid,” “imbecile,” “impaired,” “spastic,” and “retarded.” There is a history of harm and violence in these words, though some activists have reclaimed “crippled,” including at Cripple magazine and Crip the Vote, a disability visibility project.

But “special needs,” which didn’t start as a slur, is resoundingly rejected by campaigns like #DontCallMeSpecial. “Special” is the latest euphemism to become a dysphemism, the morphing of what’s meant to be a positive phrase into a derogatory one. “Special needs” fell out of fashion when advocates pointed out there’s nothing “special” about needing health care, education, safety, and access to public accommodations. The Americans With Disabilities Act National Network cautions against using “special” and other “condescending” terms like “handi-capable” and “differently abled.” The National Center on Disability and Journalism says “special” should be avoided because it “euphemistically stigmatizes that which is different.” It recommends using the phrase “functional needs,” as in “the functional needs of people with disabilities.” It also advocates people-first language like “people with disabilities” instead of “the disabled” for the same reasons “you would avoid referring to ‘the Asians,’ ‘the Jews’ or ‘the African-Americans’”: “The” has definitional power. It essentializes, reduces, and distances.

“Special” is the latest euphemism to become a dysphemism, the morphing of what’s meant to be a positive phrase into a derogatory one.

Mother Jones’ style guide, which we’ve been updating and are preparing to publish, is informed by NCDJ’s approach. Our stance on writing about disabilities is flexible but calibrated: We defer to our sources’ preferences on how they want to be described, but when their wishes aren’t known, we default to the term “people with disabilities.” “People with physical limitations” is also useful—not everyone with a limitation is disabled.

The frustrating truth about labels is that they constantly change, and not always as fast as identities and awareness evolve. When vocabulary doesn’t catch up, people without a trace of malice can be left using yesterday’s words while judged by today’s definitions. If even Elizabeth Warren gets branded as someone “harming” people with disabilities by using words widely accepted not long ago and still in widespread use, it’s progress of a kind: You can measure meaningful strides in public life by the criticism rightly aimed at politicians’ word choice when it falls behind their policies.

People with disabilities do not share a single voice or set of words—which is why the 60-plus essays in About Us don’t share a vocabulary or set of labels, bouncing from “disabled people” to “the disabled” to “people with disabilities” to “special.” The essays enlarge more than they standardize; they broaden more than they box in. The stories “do a double trick: They normalize disability and they exceptionalize it,” Andrew Solomon writes in the forward. The reason “special” gets a pass in the book and not in Warren’s speech is because the book critically examines it—in Warren’s words, it’s rotely recited.

The disability rights movement is growing. But our country has not escaped its history of institutional scorn for people with disabilities. Law and language are starting to improve, and attitudes with them. If you’re a person with a disability, where are you on these issues? Is disability an integral part of your identity (being disabled) or a condition (having a disability), or both? What do you want candidates to do, not just say? Weigh in below or reach us at styleguide@motherjones.com.

Climate Change Is Coming for America’s Favorite Wine Grape

Larkmead Vineyards in Calistoga, California, embodies the Napa Valley of popular imagination. At the beginning of harvest, vines heavy with inky clumps of grapes stretch out in perfect rows, their leaves showing the faintest yellow tinge of autumn’s impending turn. The grapevines run for 110 acres to the base of the Mayacamas and Vaca Mountains, interrupted only by the occasional service road and a quaint white farmhouse.

But picturesque landscapes are not what Dan Petroski, Larkmead’s winemaker, wants to show me when I arrive at the 124-year-old vineyard at the end of August. Instead, he trots me over to an empty field. “This is our future,” Petroski declares, spreading his arms proudly in the direction of the ruddy expanse of gravely, clay-based soil. “This is three acres we are committing to the next 21 years to figure out what’s going to be the next great wine grape of Larkmead—and hopefully of Napa Valley.”

Follow Kara to Napa and hear more about why wine matters in the conversation about climate change on our latest episode of Eating in Climate Chaos, from Bite podcast:

Right now, the distinction belongs to the cabernet sauvignon grape, which accounts for more than 80 percent of Larkmead’s annual harvest and produces the type of cabernet wines that have defined Napa for decades. A wine made with Napa cabernet sauvignon grapes, picked at the height of ripeness, will be intensely flavored with ripe plum, black currant, and floral notes. But as the valley sees warmer nights, less fog, and more days that surpass 100 degrees, Petroski and his fellow Cabernet producers are struggling to ripen their grapes as they lose the conditions that once gave their wines a flavorful edge. As the planet trends warmer, a number of researchers predict that, at some point in the next two to three decades, cabernet will stop thriving in Napa.

Wine grapes grow only under very specific conditions: the narrow bands of 30 to 50 degrees of latitude in each hemisphere, where the average temperature during the hottest months hovers in the mid-60s and just south of freezing during the coldest. Their sensitivity makes them a bellwether for climactic shifts, sounding the alarm for agricultural production more broadly.

Cabernet producers are struggling to ripen their grapes under the conditions that have given their wines a flavorful edge.

Mother Jones first wrote about the wine industry’s fate at the hands of climate change in 2010, back when grape growers were merely speculating what a warming planet might do to their fragile product. “We have no idea what effects global warming will have on the conditions that affect Napa Valley wines, so to prepare for those changes seems to me to be whistling past the cemetery,” John Williams, co-founder of Napa’s Frog’s Leap Winery, said at the time.

Now, Petroski and his fellow winemakers do have an idea of what those effects will be, and he and others are pouring tens of thousands of dollars in experiments that may help them adapt. They believe that Napa, with the success and wealth of its wine businesses, may be in the best position to develop the creative solutions that help farmers prosper in the new normal. Starting next year, Petroski will embark on a 21-year experiment to determine which grape varieties might thrive in Napa’s warming climate. “With this climate—which has been a utopia for growing great wine grapes for the last 50 years—will it be the same grapes we’ve had success with in the last 50 years?” Petroski wonders. “Or is there going to be a whole new set of grapes that we have to evolve to?”

Napa Valley’s metamorphosis from hinterland to a dominion of fine wines is a thing of legend. In 1966, Robert Mondavi opened the first major post-Prohibition winery in Napa with a grand ambition: To turn a region known primarily for its low-quality bulk and sacramental wines into a mecca for the most highly sought vintages in the world. The region’s hot days, cool nights, and low rainfall bore uncanny similarities to the dry Mediterranean climate of Bordeaux, France, which had for centuries produced the world’s most celebrated wines. A flock of like-minded disciples followed Mondavi’s lead, planting grapes that defined Bordeaux’s blends—most significantly, cabernet sauvignon. By the mid-1970s, Mondavi and his allies had succeeded: A blind tasting held in Paris in 1976 declared Napa’s Bordeaux-style wines to be better than their forbearers’. Today, cabernet vines cover 51 percent of Napa’s 46,000 acres, and the 2018 crop reached $1 billion in value.

For more than half a century, vintners specializing in Cabernet have enjoyed near-perfect growing conditions in Napa. The region’s summer days begin with a layer of fog—something winemakers call “refrigerated sunshine”—that burns off by midday, providing just the right amount of heat required to develop sugars in the grapes that give wine its sweetness and alcohol. Cool nights follow with a temperature shift of nearly 50 degrees on average, which builds the fruit’s acidity, a necessary counter to the sugar. The grapes generally hang on the vine until late October, giving them enough time to develop a complex tannic structure—the compound that gives wine that drying mouthfeel red-wine drinkers have been conditioned to crave.

But not this year. Petroski and I walk over to nearby cabernet sauvignon vines and taste a couple of grapes. They’re nearly fully baked, Petroski says; he’ll pick his first red wine grapes just after Labor Day. “It’s August,” he says. “This is the right time to be picking sauvignon blanc, but red wine grapes—you wouldn’t normally expect to pick them this early.” The evenings haven’t been getting as cool as they used to, meaning there isn’t as much morning fog. On average, Petroski’s picking red wine grapes four weeks earlier than he had been when he first started making wines for Larkmead in 2006. In some years, he’s picked them at the end of August, two months earlier than their expected date of ripeness.

Petroski’s picking red wine grapes four weeks earlier than he had been when he first started making wines for Larkmead in 2006.

Early isn’t a major problem for now. Petroski cloaks 90 percent of the grapes with shade cloth to help regulate the early morning temperatures. But he’s imagining a not-so-distant future when the evenings never get cool, or the shade cloth doesn’t help. Based on current historical averages, Napa only sees two days a year with a heat index above 100 degrees. By 2050, the region can expect to see between 15 and 30 days above 100 degrees, according to a July report from the Union of Concerned Scientists. At that temperature, grapevines generally stop production: They’ll halt the process of turning sunlight into energy, stunting the growth of the plant and the fruit. If the hot temperatures sustain, vines lose their leaves.

As for the grapes? “Raisins,” Petroski says, a kind of stewy, sugary mess that more closely resembles jam than wine. If Napa’s temperatures continue to climb, he imagines cabernet will turn into an “out-of-balance, no-flavor, kind of insipid grape that looks great but tastes terrible.”

Next year, Petroski plans to test out seven grape varieties that he doesn’t currently grow on the Larkmead property. He’ll try a few grapes known to thrive in hotter Mediterranean climates, like touriga nacional, the Portuguese grape at the heart of port, and tempranillo, which is the base of Spanish Rioja. He’ll also plant some zinfandel and petite syrah, varieties that do well in California’s Central Valley, a bit south of Napa.

“What we’re hearing and what science is telling us is that the entire coast of the United States is going to shift its weather pattern by 120 miles north in 20 to 30 years,” Petroski says. “So if we have to think of what’s a hundred miles south of us and they’re growing Zinfandel and Petite Syrah and are doing well with it—that’s going to be our climate in 20 years. We need to be thinking about that here.”

Other growers in Napa have been thinking about this, too, as the San Francisco Chronicle’s Esther Mobley has reported. Spottswoode Winery, another family-owned producer five miles southeast of Larkmead, is similarly testing out other varieties. Andy Beckstoffer, one of Napa’s most renowned cabernet grape growers, is working with the University of California, Davis, to develop 100 different combinations of grape plant clones and rootstock to find one that is drought-tolerant and has a longer ripening cycle that will counteract the natural proclivities of the current plants vintners favor. There’s some urgency in figuring out which grape merits the investment: A 2011 study found that the amount of land in Northern California suitable for growing wine grapes could decrease by half by the year 2040 due to climate change; around the world, the amount of suitable land will shrink by 23 to 75 percent by 2050.

In a world in which half a billion people live in places rapidly turning to deserts, and increasing droughts, floods, and storms further threaten the 10 percent of the world’s undernourished population, caring about the future of wine may seem a bit frivolous. Watching wealthy diners waste $10,000 on a bottle of wine, in fact, is what pushed Corbin Trent, an activist who helped bring Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into office and serves as her campaign’s communications director, to leave his job as a chef and move into politics, where he could correct the economic forces that enabled such behavior, the Intercept’s Ryan Grim detailed in his new book. Wine is but a tiny percentage of the world’s agricultural production, and Napa is but a drop in that very small bottle: Only 0.4 percent of the world’s wine comes from the valley.

“We all have to start the conversation somewhere and wine is a great place to start.”

Elizabeth Wolkovich, an associate professor of forest and conservation sciences at the University of British Columbia, used to have similar misgivings. “Climate change is such a major issue—we should be talking about people who experience food insecurity and the foundational issues of getting by,” she says. “And yet, people were much more interested in talking to me about what was happening to their Bordeaux.”

But over time, her thinking has changed: Now, she welcomes people drawing connections between the food they’re enjoying and changes on a grander scale. “Anything that engages people is a great way to talk about climate change,” she says. “We all have to start the conversation somewhere and wine is a great place to start.”

As for Petroski, he has started viewing the luxury product as an opportunity. His wine’s financial success has given him and his fellow vintners the ability to refine their agricultural practices—something that could, in turn, benefit agriculture as a whole as it strives to adapt to a new climate. In many respects, Petroski has inherited Mondavi’s ambition, but with a new goal in mind. “Because of the success we’ve had with our travel and our tourism and hospitality, there’s money in this valley to invest in being leaders,” Petroski says. “If we truly believe the statement that wine is made in a vineyard, then we should be the best vineyard farmers in the world.”

Chicago Teachers Are on Strike for Their City

On Thursday, after months of negotiations, tens of thousands of Chicago teachers stepped away from the classroom to strike on behalf of what the city’s schools CEO, Janice Jackson, calls a “social justice bargaining” agenda. She used the phrase sneeringly, but what was there to sneer at? In addition to the standard suite of educator demands—pay raises, a reduction in class sizes, more social workers and nurses—the Chicago Teachers Union is calling on the city to increase funding for affordable housing, hire staff to help homeless students, and expand community schools that offer “wraparound” services for students. Educators are asking Chicago to address the gaps in social provision they’re too often called upon to fill themselves.

“Look, we are dealing with the impact of terrible social policy in this city, and it is unbelievable to me that people think we shouldn’t have a voice on that.”

These are a unique set of demands, from a union that played an outsized role in re-energizing the labor movement and raising worker expectations around the country. Going up against then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel during their 2012 strike, Chicago teachers likewise went beyond simple bread-and-butter issues like pay and made demands for broader social change, framing the issue as one of racial equity. This is known as “bargaining for the public good,” and teacher unions are increasingly adopting the approach. Earlier this year, in Los Angeles, teachers parlayed a walkout during contract negotiations into more funding for nurses and social workers, reduced class sizes, and even limits to police searches.

Ahead of Thursday’s strike, I spoke to Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, to talk about the teachers’ return to the picket line and the meaning of bargaining for the public good.

What’s the current status of negotiations? 

There’s a bit of resignation on the other side of the table. But also, the other side of the table doesn’t understand how to do equity and justice with respect to a collective bargaining agreement, because the Chicago Public Schools have a long history of inequity and injustice. And so what we are asking them to do in this moment is something that they don’t have much of a muscle for.

What are the core differences between the two sides? 

The Chicago Teachers Union sees this collective bargaining agreement as something that helps to reposition and transform our school districts. Chicago Public Schools sees this as a power move. And not understanding the function of school—and what those workers who are in the schools are asking for—is a fundamental difference in our positions and is why we’re so far apart.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson called CTU’s approach “social justice bargaining.” How do you respond to that characterization? 

Look, I don’t know any teacher who made a choice to teach in the Chicago Public Schools who does not see their role as a change agent. You don’t teach in Englewood, Roseland, or West Garfield Park to maintain status quo. You teach there because you want children in those environments to understand potential, to understand their ability to shift potential in that space and to be better as people. So I don’t understand what she doesn’t understand.

In that sense, as you guys are fighting for more than just pay and benefits, going beyond the mandatory parts of this bargaining…

We don’t become teachers because we’re trying to get rich. Wall Street, LaSalle Street, those are places for people who are driven by money. 

Our members are driven by service to children in the city, and in order to do the services for the children in the city, their families, and the communities that they inhabit, you need resources and you need staff in order to do it, or else you’re just maintaining status quo. It is the worst thing in the world as an educator to go home every single night and feel like you failed the students in front of you. It is terrible. And because it feels like that, you have people who have now found their power and their voice and are pushing for something better. It is not fair for us to go into school communities and to manage poverty. It is not fair for our teachers to go into these school communities and manage the lack of resources and to manage white supremacy and to manage low expectations.

Our children are put in a position where they have to adjust to everything bad in this world. That’s unfair. What the educators in the Chicago Teachers Union are saying in this moment is that the adjusting needs to happen with the people who do not pay taxes. So in Chicago, we subsidize building the skyscrapers, we subsidize wealthy playgrounds in one of the richest neighborhoods in the world. But we don’t subsidize social workers and nurses for students in Austin. We don’t subsidize smaller class sizes for students in Chatham. What we do is that these things are exacerbated by the inequities that have been built into the system. And so you’re expecting a teacher to give and to do, but you give them nothing to do it with. That is unjust. 

Chicago is a very expensive place, and it’s getting more and more expensive as the days go on. Chicago is also a place that evicted black people from its premises. They tore down public housing, and with the destruction of public housing, black people were pushed out of the city. And it contributes to the number of students who are homeless in this city. That’s a problem. How do you have children who don’t have homes that are before you on a daily basis and you don’t say something about it? But I gotta be honest with you. I don’t understand why this is such a big deal for other people to conceive of. Have you ever been in a classroom where you can ask, “Has anyone been impacted by gun violence?” and see the majority of hands go up in your classroom? Have you ever been in a classroom where you ask people if they live with your mom and dad and you don’t see a lot of hands go up that they live with an aunt, they live with the uncle, or they live with the godmother?

We are actually dealing with children who are living a very precarious existence because there is nothing here for them. Rahm closed mental health care clinics. He was a part of the destruction of public housing. He sat on Chicago Housing Authority money while the wait list for Section 8 continued to build out of this world. We live in a city where they closed 50 schools on black children and privatized a tremendous amount of others and those schools do not meet the needs of all students that attend it. Look, we are dealing with the impact of terrible social policy in this city, and it is unbelievable to me that people think we shouldn’t have a voice on that. We are responsible for that anytime you say that a kid has to take a test and the score on that test determines if I’m a good teacher or if I’m a bad teacher. And I know, number one, that the instruments you’re giving them is grounded in white supremacy and racism. Number two, if I don’t have a stable household, if my father doesn’t have a stable employment, that those test scores are not going to reach the level the district says they have to reach. So I’m dealing with all of these mandates by the district but have no resources from the district or the city that’s in control of the district. That’s the problem. 

Why is it important to talk about education in harmony with other issues like support staff and affordable housing? 

Because in school districts where achievement is the norm, students have stable household environments. They have parents who are not incarcerated. They have neighborhoods that are not besieged by gun violence, right? Those things are important. Stability is important. Safety is important. Employment is important. Housing is important. Those things contribute to academic achievement. And so if you’re not building school policy that looks like that, that supports that, you’re in trouble. We’re under mayoral control. So our boss is actually in control of everything in this city. Why would we ask our boss who is in control of housing, who is in control of employment, who is in control of development, who is in control of public safety, to also not be in control of giving those things to the spaces in the city that have been neglected for generations? It makes sense to me.

What do you make of Mayor Lightfoot saying that it’s not appropriate to talk about affordable housing? 

Well, if it was already here and she had done her job, then we wouldn’t have to talk about it. So the ball is in her court. If she doesn’t want us to talk about it, then deal with it. 

What does a win look like as you push for affordable housing? 

You can look at this in two ways. Everyone in our union is not a teacher. We have teachers’ assistants. We have school clerks, support personnel. Two-thirds of our support personnel, their children qualify for free and reduced lunch. So we want those women, because it’s largely women, largely women of color, we want them to be able to afford to live in the city of Chicago. And so we want what they give to police officers and firemen in the city to make vying in this city affordable. That’s number one. Number two, we want our families connected to the city services that offer relief when you are homeless, when you are housing insecure. We want to have a point person [for the members of] the school community who are suffering through unaffordability and homelessness the most. We want a person there able to connect those families to the services that are in the city to make sure that people who are being impacted by that trauma are getting help. It’s not a huge ask. It just really isn’t.

Mayor Lightfoot has said it’s too expensive to respond to all those demands. How do you respond to that?

That’s dumb. That’s how I respond to it. Again, this city has subsidized the construction of skyscrapers. Taxpayers in the city of Chicago have paid for skyscrapers that 99 percent of them have never been in. The city of Chicago is literally building a playground for wealthy people in Lincoln Park to have a good time, and students do not have homes. That is a question of morality. 

How does this moment compare to 2012 when the teachers went on strike? 

Look, it’s not a moment. It’s a movement. We believe that this work is a part of a movement. Moments are fleeting. Movements are sustaining. They involve more than a union. They involve community. They involve children, they involve parents and families. We don’t see this in comparison. We see this as an extension, as an expansion of the work we’ve been putting forth for the last decade.

As a mother of three kids in Chicago’s schools, how do you see that influence your approach to fighting for a contract? 

I became a high school English teacher in Englewood, in Humboldt Park, in North Lawndale because children in places that have been forgotten about by city leadership for generations, those children need to know that they have value, that they matter. And my fight for my children isn’t any different from any other child in the city because my children will have to live in this city with other people. That’s why I fight so hard. If I want my children to have a well-resourced school, I want someone else’s child to have a well-resourced school. If I want my child to have a librarian, I’m going to fight for the next child to have a librarian. My children cannot live in this world by themselves. They live in this world with other people, and I want those other people to be loved. I want those other people to have had resources and to be able to interact with my children in productive, safe ways. That’s it, man. We live in a society. We don’t live on island. We don’t live in isolation. We live in neighborhoods with people. Those people need things. And in this city, we have forgotten that.

Free Speech Applies to Social Media Too

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave a speech today defending his decision not to police political ads:

“People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world — a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society,” Mr. Zuckerberg, 35, said. He added that despite the messiness of free speech, “the long journey towards greater progress requires confronting ideas that challenge us. I’m here today because I believe we must continue to stand for free expression.”

I continue to be more on Zuckerberg’s side than on the conventional lefty side of this. As always, my fundamental concern when anyone suggests a restriction on free speech is, “Who decides?” I don’t want the government deciding, and I’m not sure I really want Mark Zuckerberg deciding either.

Let’s dive a little deeper, though. This whole affair reminds me of concerns about the early blogosphere: Why, those bloggers can say anything! They can even lie and not suffer any consequences!

Quite so. And that’s been true of speech since the founding of the country. In general, the question isn’t whether speech is true, but whether it’s actionable. If it is, and if you want to do something about it, you go to court.

But wait: maybe that’s OK for blogs, which have a pretty small audience. Facebook, however, has an enormous audience. Can we really allow such a big platform to remain unregulated?

I think so. After all, freedom of speech doesn’t mean much if it only applies to small platforms. Let’s consider two other platforms that are probably as big or bigger than Facebook:

Television. This is a regulated medium, but it’s pretty lightly regulated—and cable TV is barely regulated at all. Nor do TV stations themselves do much vetting of campaign ads. What keeps political TV ads from going too far overboard is that they’re highly public: everyone sees them, and an ad that’s way over the line can do more harm than good.

Of course, there’s also the alternative of filing a complaint with the FEC. That’s pretty weak tea, but no one really seems to want the government to have much more authority than that. Needless to say, the same remedy is available if you see a Facebook ad you don’t like.

Online newsletters, chain mails, etc. Don’t laugh: there’s a ton of this stuff out there. It’s a huge platform, and it’s the source of most of the truly outrageous social media stuff. Like Facebook, however, it’s extremely targeted: you mostly have no idea it’s out there unless you’re part of the target audience.

So would you regulate it? If not, why not? Why would you support regulation of content on Facebook that you aren’t willing to regulate elsewhere?

This is no easy problem. But keep a couple of things in mind. First, outrageously false Facebook posts are inherently limited in their influence because they have to stay targeted. If everyone sees them, they can do more harm than good. Second, do you really want political speech policed by the content regulation departments at Facebook and Twitter and Instagram—all of whom have a corporate interest in staying on the right side of whatever government is in power at the moment? I don’t.

Mick Mulvaney Issues Furious Denial of Mick Mulvaney’s “Quid Pro Quo” Allegations

Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney on Thursday night sent out a statement to reporters moonwalking back an admission he’d made during a White House press briefing earlier in the day: that the Trump administration withheld military aid from Ukraine as a ploy to get Ukraine to investigate a baseless theory involving Democrats, a server, and the 2016 election. In the span of a few hours, Mulvaney had covered the full spectrum of Trumpish protestation: from a wised-up “everyone does it” to a martyred cry of total innocennce.

Here’s what he told reporters hours ago:

"To be clear, what you described is a quid pro quo" — Here's Mick Mulvaney casually admitting that Trump held up aid to Ukraine as leverage to get the Ukrainian government to investigate the 2016 election pic.twitter.com/ylz7BKEmKd

— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) October 17, 2019

Mulvaney just said that U.S. military aid for Ukraine was held up pending Ukraine’s investigation of Democrats.

Things just went from very, very bad to much, much worse. https://t.co/HSVtX9yOBg

— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) October 17, 2019

When ABC News’ Jon Karl pointed out that what Mulvaney had said amounted to a quid pro quo, Mulvaney responded: “We do that all the time with foreign policy. Now, in a statement that starts with blaming the media for misconstruing what he told reporters, Mulvaney claimed that there actually “never was any condition on the flow of the aid related to the matter of the DNC server.” 

Mick Mulvaney today.

At 12:30 pm: "Did he also mention to me the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about it.

At 6 pm: “There never was any condition on the flow of the aid related to the matter of the DNC server.”

New statement attached. pic.twitter.com/StFuwFAKti

— Yamiche Alcindor (@Yamiche) October 17, 2019

The Russians Who Hacked the DNC Are Now Targeting European Governments

The group of Russian hackers that hacked the Democratic National Committee ahead of the 2016 US presidential election “has been busy compromising government targets, including three European Ministries of Foreign Affairs and the Washington DC embassy of a European Union county, all without drawing attention to their activities,” according to a report released Thursday by ESET, a European cybersecurity firm.

The research shows the Russian government’s apparent hacking of foreign government targets remains robust and active, and that the attackers have found ways to conduct operations even after the high profile attacks on the US presidential election brought unprecedented public attention to their efforts.

The report, titled “Operation Ghost: The Dukes aren’t back—they never left,” details how the group known variously as Cozy Bear, APT29, or the Dukes—which was one of two Russian-intelligence linked groups found to have hacked the DNC—has used a variety of methods to remain active even as they were under the eyes of the world’s major intelligence services. According to the report, the group has been targeting foreign ministries in at “least three different countries in Europe” and European diplomats in the United States; additional victims are likely, the authors note, but because the hackers used unique setups for each attack they were not able to identify them.

“We spent months apparently chasing a ghost then, a few months ago, we were able to attribute several distinct intrusions to the Dukes,” the authors wrote, explaining a difficult research process based on analyzing code, shared infrastructure, malware operations, and overlaps with previous attacks. The report details the group’s harnessing of some previously unseen tools combined with tactics and methods from previous known attacks, including the use of Twitter and Reddit to host URLs related to the operations, Dropbox, and steganography—hiding data within other data, in this case concealing information enabling the attacks in innocuous-looking photos.

Two photos used as part of Russian operations described in the report.

 

“Operation Ghost shows that the Dukes never stopped their espionage activities,” the authors wrote. “They might pause for a while and re-appear in another form, but they still need to spy to fulfill their mandates.”

Lunchtime Photo

Here’s the latest on the new Gerald Desmond bridge across Long Beach harbor, in a picture taken from the old Gerald Desmond bridge. Not much more to go! The new bridge is scheduled to open next year.

October 5, 2019 — Long Beach, California

 

The Whitewashing of “#WhitePeopleDoingYoga”

Back in 2013, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco invited me to contribute to a show about yoga co-organized by the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The exhibition, Yoga: The Art of Transformation, was the first major show ever mounted about the 2,500-year history of yoga. It featured over a hundred paintings, photographs, and sculptures. Curators, seeking a contemporary perspective, invited me to contribute to an educational exhibit for the show after having met me at a previous event. At the same time, I had another project up, at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, documenting the Indian American motel community across this country. It was an exciting time for me. But I didn’t expect the absurdities that would soon follow—a parade of condescension, passive aggressiveness, and white fragility in which the Asian Art Museum revealed itself to be in a losing struggle with the whiteness at the core of its identity.

My run-in with the museum is the subject of new work I’m showing this month at the Human Resources gallery in Los Angeles. It’s taken me this long to tell the story because it was such a jarring experience. This was the Asian Art Museum, the largest museum dedicated exclusively to the Asian arts in the United States—one of the largest platforms out there for an artist like me.

When I was asked to contribute, I took the invitation at face value: The Asian Art Museum wanted to give space to an Indian American artist. Much of my work focuses on first-generation Indian American experiences with appropriation and assimilation. The museum provided a first-floor wall—a big platform and a big honor.

Our agreement for the installation included my assemblage of yoga ephemera that I’d collected in the form of magazines, books, posters, and album covers. Together they told the story of how the $16 billion yoga industry in this country had rebranded a South Asian discipline to sell yoga as a line of products—how yoga became Yoga. It’s no coincidence that you rarely see a South Asian person on the cover of Yoga Journal magazine. Yoga has been put in an ironic position: Colonized and commodified, a tradition rooted in detachment and equanimity has been hijacked by a grasping possessiveness. I titled my work #WhitePeopleDoingYoga.

I knew the title #WhitePeopleDoingYoga would be provocative, but I chose it for a reason: For this installation, yoga was a case study in how culture gets colonized, a pattern that holds across industries, from fashion to food to music. The installation was meant to show how overwhelming and suffocating appropriation becomes under a capitalist structure. Every piece in the installation was either selling something or was itself once for sale.

But once my proposal made the rounds among curators, educators, and PR folks, cracks started to show in the museum’s support for the installation. The show’s lead curators and education staffers I’d met—all but one of whom were white—didn’t feel completely comfortable with the title. They wanted something innocuous like #PeopleDoingYoga, without the word “white,” because the term “white people” could be “offensive” to museumgoers, donors, and staff. During our initial meetings at the museum, they told me to “turn down the volume” of my critique. They also insisted I remove a section of the installation—a Hindu-inspired shrine featuring photographs of a white couple as South Asian gurus. “This might be offensive to Indian people,” staffers said—white authorities telling me what Indian people might find offensive. They gave me an ultimatum: Either I take down the shrine, or they don’t include my installation. Museum leaders were diluting my installation, going well beyond the standard curatorial role. 

[In an email to a Mother Jones fact-checker, museum reps acknowledge that there had been misgivings over the title and the installation in general, which they emphasize was intended to be “educational” rather than artistic. But they dispute that there was any ultimatum. According to a museum spokesperson, Bhakta was told that the phrase “white people” could be “offensive or puzzling” to some. As examples, the spokesperson pointed to “Anglo practitioners of yoga unfamiliar with the concepts of cultural appropriation/appreciation, and K-12 students who haven’t had the proper exposure to understand the statement implied in ‘White People Doing Yoga.'” Additionally, in the same email to Mother Jones, Qamar Adamjee, one of the exhibit’s curators, writes that the museum objected to the shrine on the grounds that “as an object type [it] did not align with the rest of the display,” but that the installation was not contingent on its removal: “We had invited him to do the display and revoking that invitation was not a consideration at any point.”]

Over the years, I’ve heard many shocking accounts from friends—artists of color from New York to Bombay, Los Angeles to London—about their experiences with institutional racism in its various forms. The numbers alone tell some of the story: A recent Williams College study found that 75 percent of artists in major US museums are white men, and the Association of Art Museum Directors reports that 72 percent of staff at its member institutions are white. These are the people who shape and reshape the canon, who have the power to decide and dismiss.

A bust of Avery Brundage at the entrance of the Asian Art Museum

 Chiraag Bhakta

Consider the Asian Art Museum’s own history: It was founded on the collection of Avery Brundage, a Chicago businessman and the fifth president of the International Olympic Committee. Brundage’s portrait still hangs proudly in the museum library; a bust of him greets you at the entrance of the museum. In 1959, Brundage began donating his Asian artwork to the city of San Francisco—a collection that would amount to nearly 8,000 pieces. What the museum leaves out of its public narrative is that its founder was “the preeminent American apologist for Nazi Germany,” in the words of author Jeremy Schaap. In the ’60s, the Olympic Committee for Human Rights, a group protesting racism in sports, demanded Brundage’s removal as the Olympics president. The committee had exposed his ownership of a country club in California that excluded Jewish and black people from its membership. In response to a potential boycott by black athletes of the 1968 Olympics, Brundage notoriously said, “They won’t be missed.” (He had been instrumental in preventing a US boycott of the so-called Nazi games in 1936.)  Brundage was “a racist down to his toes,” said Lee Evans, an American sprinter on the 1968 Olympic team. “A brutal, racist pig,” said a teammate, Marty Liquori. A “Jew hater and a Jew baiter,” was the verdict of Gustavus Town Kirby, delivered in a 1936 letter to Brundage himself. Now think about how a man like this actually acquired his art collection. Don’t fool yourself.

The Asian Art Museum is far from the only institution negotiating its own white supremacist foundations. Just a few years ago, the British Museum’s Twitter account revealed as much when it shared how it decides to label artwork, tweeting: “We aim to be understandable by 16 year olds. Sometimes Asian names can be confusing, so we have to be careful about using too many.” (Dang, sorry to all those 16-year-old Asian kids with funny names.)

My installation went up after rounds of hard-fought revisions. I stood firm on the title #WhitePeopleDoingYoga, but I caved on the museum’s ultimatum: I took down the shrine depicting a white couple as South Asian gurus.

The installation as it appeared at the Asian Art Museum

 Chiraag Bhakta

Let’s break this shit down: Here were white elites exerting power over Brown critique that was explicitly about white elites exerting power over Brown culture. The irony is comical now, but it was painful and unnerving then. After taking parts down, I thought the worst was over, but it was only the beginning. People across the operation, from the marketing department to the education team to the curatorial staff, continued to sterilize my perspective, tiptoeing around me to make themselves feel more comfortable and spare the museum further controversy. Brown critique had to be sanitized for white consumption.

Here were white elites exerting power over Brown critique that was explicitly about white elites exerting power over Brown culture.

Throughout my meetings with curators and educators, there was one person whose name they kept mentioning as an authority calling the shots—the chief curator, also white, an unseen figure in the forest who seemed to be deliberately keeping a distance. At first, I wouldn’t have expected the chief curator to get involved, but it was a bit alarming that he never did, given all that went down. Some of the staffers under him were maneuvering through tense conversations with me, like messengers nervously doing their boss’s bidding to keep their jobs. I completely sympathize, but it left me wondering: Was I seeing the museum’s disorganization or something more malicious, a deliberate mixing of messages? It felt as if I’d hit a sore spot with several white staffers. Some of them had dedicated their entire lives to Asian arts, and now they had been implicated in my critique of appropriation. Why were they being criticized, they seemed to wonder. Weren’t they the ones giving nonwhite artists like me a platform?

I’d soon caught wind that senior staffers, without telling me, had decided to withhold my work’s title from marketing material. This was enraging. The title #WhitePeopleDoingYoga was my observation—my statement as an Indian American. It was the core of my piece; the ephemera was just the vehicle, and the museum knew that. This battle over a title became a proxy for something bigger: a struggle over whose sensitivities needed to be protected and whose could be ignored.

As part of the marketing rollout for the yoga show, the museum planned to publish a 12-by-12-inch, 24-page advertising supplement in the San Francisco Examiner, the SF Weekly, and the SF Bay Guardian. In all, 250,000 copies were being printed. The museum had decided behind my back that it was not going to promote my work in an honest way—not just by excluding the title but also by dumbing down the description of my work. At one point, a draft of the marketing material referred to my work as an “amusing” and “lighthearted” collection.

And of course my title was nowhere to be found in the supplement. I decided to insert it myself: I contacted the supplement’s ad team, without consulting the museum, and took out my own full-page ad:

Chiraag Bhakta

I paid out of pocket, negotiating a reduced rate that was equal to what the museum had paid me for my installation: $1,500. Straight into my hands for my work and straight out of my hands for my ad, all to retain my voice. Symmetry at its finest.

Michael Martinez

By this point, the museum store had already agreed to sell merch that I would create: T-shirts, tote bags, and postcards. (Ah, the irony of selling products for an installation critiquing capitalism.) When it came time to display my merch in the store, the marketing chief found out that my stuff bore the title #WhitePeopleDoingYoga and froze: In a meeting with two PR leaders, the marketer told me in a chipper, condescending voice that they weren’t sure where they stood on my merch. They needed a few days to think it through while keeping all the products in the basement.

I called a meeting, inviting all 11 staffers who’d been involved in the process, nine of whom were white. What an awkward meeting. I met them in this grand, lavish, colonial-style boardroom, and from across a formal table, I listened to the marketing chief declare that the words “white people” are “offensive” and appear “out of context” on the merch. (Isn’t all merch out of context?) Remember, this was an approved title. If a museum is going to approve an artwork’s title, either stand by it or don’t. The push-and-pull was infuriating and exhausting. Getting a clear position from the museum was like trying to play catch with a balloon.

One of the museum’s staff members, who was white, came to my defense in that boardroom. He exposed the museum’s hypocrisy by holding up its own branded tote bag that bore only the word “Asian” on it, and as I remember it he said, “I’m a white man walking around San Francisco with this bag that just says ‘Asian’ on it, without ‘museum,’ and it’s completely ‘out of context.’ Why is our bag okay but Chiraag’s is not?” The marketing chief’s response: “Well, that’s our brand, so it’s okay.”

Chiraag Bhakta

And what to do with all those stacks of merch that they weren’t going to sell anymore? I joked that they should ship them to India—put some shirts on kids’ backs and create some interesting conversation. My other suggestion: Give the merch back to me. The museum eventually pulled all my bags and shirts from the store and sold them to me for a total of $1, to acknowledge the transaction.

The opening parties featured Indian classical music performed by white people, acro-yoga performed by white people, a chanting group mostly compromising white people, and a white couple from Marin teaching yoga for an hour. There was a sprinkle of Brown acts, but the headliner—wait for it—was a white rapper named MC Yogi, who spit about yoga and Indian culture over a beat dropped by DJ Drez, a white DJ with dreads. (Reminder: the largest institution of Asian art in the United States.)

Onstage behind the musicians was a massive projection of MC Yogi’s name, an Om symbol, and a crown—the very symbol of British oppression over India for hundreds of years. Here was a white artist mashing symbols and cultures—Indian and hip-hop—to root his identity in the fetishization of Brown and cool purely for his own benefit, disregarding communities of color.

Musicians perform at a 2014 gala celebrating the Asian Art Museum’s Yoga: The Art of Transformation.

Claudine Gossett for Drew Altizer Photography Jason Tongen

To a certain kind of liberal-minded white person, perspectives like MC Yogi’s are commonly viewed as positive. He is “sharing” and “celebrating” cultures, not raiding them for his own benefit. In these contexts, positivity acts as a sort of Trojan horse; it’s how you smuggle white supremacy into the gates. Perspectives like mine, on the other hand, are widely seen as negative, divisive. The title of my upcoming show in Los Angeles plays on this concept: Why You So Negative?

The yoga show in 2013–2014 was scheduled to make one last stop after San Francisco, in Cleveland. I spoke with the Cleveland Art Museum to see if its curators wanted to include my installation. The lead curator said the idea was “hugely interesting” and “there is a lot of enthusiasm for your project here at CMA.” The curator flew to San Francisco and met me in person. Enthusiasm kept building. The conversation progressed far enough that we began talking costs, which didn’t seem like a sticking point. The curator even emailed me an internal floorplan of the show to finalize gallery placement.

After more than a month of fine-tuning our plans, the curator said there was one last “hurdle” to clear before approval: The Cleveland museum planned to invite the city’s commercial yoga studios to teach classes and had to make sure the studios felt comfortable in the same space as an installation titled #WhitePeopleDoingYoga. That’s when the plans fell apart. Out of nowhere, the curator—the uneasy messenger—emailed me to say the museum felt that my installation would be “ad hoc” (odd, given that we’d spent a month planning it). And, wait, what had happened to that last “hurdle”? It’s not surprising that local businesses could mute a museum’s platform; that’s what happens when you trade curatorial integrity for financial obligations. (Mother Jones couldn’t reach the curator for comment.)

The whole ordeal left me exhausted. My own community was a source of comfort, though. My friend Vijay Iyer, the jazz composer, MacArthur “genius” grant winner, and Harvard arts professor, gave me reassurance that I was not alone. In a talk he delivered in 2014 at Yale, he mentioned my installation in San Francisco, saying it was part of a “problematic exhibit,” and called out “Northern California culture’s imperial relationship to all things Indian.” Vijay was speaking as a South Asian American who’d spent plenty of time “navigating and resisting the exoticizing, incorporating tendencies of white American cultural omnivores”:

Because of the circles I traveled in as an artist, I noticed a similar tendency in the way that whites in the Bay Area dealt with jazz, hip-hop, and all things Black: not as a defiant assertion of Black identity and community, but as the fetishized trappings of cool—something white people could wear, collect, or otherwise incorporate into white subjectivity.

That was it: My experience with the Asian Art Museum was an exercise in watching white people work out their identity on the back of mine. The platform they seemed to give me, it turned out, wasn’t actually for me—it was for them, a way to fashion my Brownness into something they could wear. White supremacy works that way, for all “minorities”; it censors any critique contained in nonwhite expression and commodifies and tokenizes whatever’s left, forcing people like me into the posture of the model minority.

But I’m the negative one, right?

You can find more about Chiraag Bhakta’s work on PardonMyHindi.com. His solo show, Why You So Negative?, opens Friday and runs through October 27 at Human Resources in Los Angeles, at 410 Cottage Home Street, HumanResourcesLA.comThe show’s programming includes a performance by artist Nikhil Chopra, who recently performed and has work up at the Met and SFMOMA. A yoga class will also take place the following weekend.

Chiraag is advised by Dr. Roger Neesh.

The Justice Department Hired the Son of a Vocal Trump Defender

The son of one of President Donald Trump’s most vocal defenders has a new gig in Trump’s Justice Department. Brady Toensing—whose mother Victoria Toensing and and step-father Joe diGenova are key players in the rapidly growing Ukraine scandal—joined the DOJ in June as a senior counsel in its Office of Legal Policy.

The DOJ won’t say how Brady Toensing got the job, but the entire family has close ties to Trump. In 2016, Brady Toensing served as Trump’s Vermont campaign chair. Last year, Victoria Toensing and diGenova—a husband-and-wife legal team who frequently appear on Fox News—agreed to represent Trump in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. That arrangement quickly fell through, but the couple has since worked with Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani to dig up damaging information on Joe Biden in Ukraine and advance bogus theories about the origin of the Russia probe. They also represent Dmytro Firtash, a Kremlin-linked Ukrainian oligarch fighting extradition to the United States on bribery charges. Firtash reportedly employed two Giuliani associates who were involved in the effort to smear Biden and were arrested last week on campaign finance charges.

There’s no evidence that Brady Toensing’s new role, which was first reported by Vermont outlets in June, would intersect with his family’s legal work. The Office of Legal Policy typically deals with DOJ-wide policies and judicial appointments, and Brady Toensing told friends when he took the job that he would be working on nominations—including helping pick a Supreme Court nominee to fill any potential vacancy, one source said. But the DOJ has not responded to multiple inquiries about what, exactly, his work entails. Brady Toensing directed questions to a Justice Department spokesman, who did not reply. Reached by phone Monday, Victoria Toensing declined to speak on the record and hung up abruptly. 

Brady Toensing says in an online bio that he worked for his mother and step-father’s firm, diGenova & Toensing, from 1996 until he joined DOJ. That included the six-day period between the announcement that the firm would join Trump’s defense team and the news it would not do so due to conflicts of interests resulting from its representation of other clients involved in the Trump-Russia scandal, including Blackwater Founder Erik Prince, former Trump legal team spokesman Mark Corallo, and the former Trump campaign aide Sam Clovis. It’s not clear if the family firm actually did any legal work for Trump during that period, but diGenova and Victoria Toensing have since functioned almost as de facto members of Trump’s defense, promoting his interests on television and elsewhere and sharing information with Giuliani that he has disseminated in the media.

For decades, dating to their involvement in efforts to impeach President Bill Clinton, DiGenova and Victoria Toensing have combined legal work with outspoken right-wing punditry on Fox News and in conservative publications. On Fox last week, diGenova, who regularly touts conspiracy theories regarding alleged plots against Trump, referred to two anonymous whistleblowers in the Ukraine scandal as “suicide bombers.” He accused Democrats investigating Trump of “sedition” and “regicide,” a word that suggests unconventional views about American democracy.

For most of his two decades at diGenova & Toensing, Brady Toensing split his time between Washington, DC, and Charlotte, Vermont, where he gained a reputation as a right-wing muckraker known for adeptly using public records requests and other legal filings to attack political adversaries. His targets were all on the left. But Toensing has said he is interested in transparency. “It’s important to hold elected officials accountable,” he told VTDigger, a Vermont publication, last year.

Toensing played a key role in promoting allegations about Jane Sanders, the wife of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). In 2016, he pushed claims that Jane Sanders, as president of Burlington College, committed fraud by overstating the value of donations pledged to the small school in order to secure financing to buy $10 million of property to expand the school’s campus. The failed deal saddled the school with debt that contributed to its closing in 2016. Toensing’s accusations sparked an investigation into Sanders by the US attorney’s office in Vermont. Prosecutors dropped the probe in early 2018, according to Jane Sanders, who denied wrongdoing. Bernie Sanders has cited Toensing’s role in the investigation to dismiss it as politically motivated.

In 2017, Brady Toensing he applied to run the same US attorney’s office that was at the time investigating Sanders, according to local news reports. He was one of three finalists for the post, but he was handicapped by his association with Trump backers—who were at odds with Vermont’s more moderate Republicans—as well as by his adversarial relationship with Democrats, a person tracking Vermont politics said. Toensing was “blackballed” for the post by Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the person said. The two officials had an agreement to jointly sign off on the US attorney pick, though the nomination is officially made by the president. 

Now Toensing has found his way into a senior Justice Department spot that doesn’t require Senate confirmation. It’s unclear exactly why he was hired or what he’s doing there. When it comes to a self-described transparency proponent, that’s a disappointment.

Donald Trump Just Won the Conflict-of-Interest Olympics

The United States will host the next G7 summit of world leaders at Donald Trump’s struggling Doral golf resort outside of Miami—a move that essentially forces foreign governments to line the president’s pockets. The decision poses perhaps the largest conflict of interest yet for a leader whose presidency is riddled with them, thanks to Trump’s refusal to separate himself from his personal business empire.

Trump’s acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney made the announcement Thursday afternoon at a White House press conference, where he claimed the controversial decision would not violate the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which prohibits top federal officials from accepting payments or gifts from foreign governments. Mulvaney claimed the summit would be hosted “at cost,”  though its unclear how the Trump Organization proposes to ensure that and, moreover, any revenue would still boost the resort’s bottom line.

Trump's announced that next year’s G7 meeting will be held at the Trump National Doral in Miami.

But don't worry, Trump won’t profit from this because he says he won’t profit from this. Any questions? pic.twitter.com/DIfHPr8vW2

— Mother Jones (@MotherJones) October 17, 2019

Despite Trump’s claims he does not profit from his position, he retains full ownership of his business empire, including the Doral resort. The president says he no longer has day-to-day control of his businesses, but he retains the ability to withdraw money from them at any point, and the mortgages on the Doral are listed as his own personal liabilities. 

Trump purchased the Doral property in 2012 for $150 million, borrowing $125 million from Deutsche Bank to fund the purchase. Since then, the venture has not flourished. Bringing in thousands of members of foreign delegations—at the expense of each country’s taxpayers—would be a huge boost for the property.

Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group that previously filed a complaint about the inclusion of Doral on a list of potential G7 sites, said that Trump is using the US government’s international power and influence to promote his personal business interests. 

“The president is now officially using the power of his office to help prop up his struggling golf business. There appears to be no bottom to President Trump’s corruption,” he said in a statement. “What matters most to him is his personal profit and personal advancement, not the best interests of the American people. There is now no question that the American government is being used as a public relations and marketing subsidiary of the Trump Organization.”

The G7 summit annually brings together the leaders of the world’s seven largest economies, along with a slew of other foreign leaders and delegations hoping to push an issue or hold talks on the sidelines of the event. The United States last hosted the G7 in 2012. President Barack Obama’s administration initially planned to convene the event in downtown Chicago, but because of security concerns it held the conference at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland. Member countries take turns hosting the event, and it is usually held at a high-end resort or conference center—and typically the summits cost a lot of money. The most recent G7, held in Biarritz, France in August, was estimated to have cost French taxpayers about $40.5 million. But those are just the costs of hosting the event—the member delegations are responsible for paying for lodging and other expenses. 

USASpending.gov, a government website that tracks federal expenditures, lists at least 10 payments to the Biarritz hotel where the most recent G7 summit was held, totaling at least $1.4 million for accommodation and “hotel services.” It’s unclear if this reflects the full bill for the American G7 delegation or if there were other costs. But if seven delegations spent roughly that much at Trump’s Doral resort, that would amount to $9.8 million in revenue. 

In Trump’s annual personal financial disclosure, Doral has shown declining revenues—from $92 million in 2015 to about $75 million in 2018. At the same time, according to local property tax filings, the resort’s profitability slipped from $13.8 million to $4.3 million between 2015 and 2017. The club also seems to be having a hard time attracting new members. Under the club’s rules, members who resign can get their initial deposit fees returned—but for one departing member to be reimbursed, four new members must sign up. In August, the Miami Herald reported that only two departing members received refunds between December 2017 and January 2019, suggesting that only eight new members joined the club in that period. 

Mulvaney Admits Quid Pro Quo, Says We Should “Get Over It”

Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, for some reason, has just admitted that aid to Ukraine was held up because President Trump wanted them to investigate political opponents:

After @jonkarl points out the White House’s explanation for its dealings with Ukraine was quid-pro-quo, the chief of staff replies: “We do that all that time with foreign policy.”

To those concerned about political influence in foreign policy, he says, “Get over it.” pic.twitter.com/AYoTajGLTL

— Josh Campbell (@joshscampbell) October 17, 2019

There are probably a few people who genuinely don’t understand the distinction here. Luckily, I’m here to help. Consider the following two cases:

CASE 1: “If we lift the embargo on Cuba, it will hurt us with the Cuban immigrant vote in Florida. We shouldn’t do it.”

CASE 2: “I want Ukraine to investigate Democrats. We should hold up military aid until they promise to do it.”

Mulvaney is right: presidents do #1 all the time. Domestic politics invariably affects foreign policy, sometimes crassly and sometimes not.

But #2? Presidents absolutely don’t do that all the time. This is not “domestic politics.” It’s using the official power of the US government to force a foreign country to smear a political opponent.

The only way to not see the difference between these two cases is to deliberately close your eyes and refuse to see it. They are night and day. What Trump has done with Ukraine is very clearly not something that happens “all the time” in foreign policy. Until now, in fact, it never happened.

ICE Detainee at Troubled For-Profit Jail Dies in Apparent Suicide

On May 18, Roylan Hernández Díaz and his wife, Yarelis Gutierrez, legally entered the United States in El Paso, Texas, to apply for asylum after fleeing Cuba. Two weeks later, after she’d been released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Gutierrez expressed her joy and optimism on a Facebook post accompanying a photo of her on a plane. “My first flight in the United States,” wrote Gutierrez, who now lives in Florida. “Thank you, heavenly father—to all my brothers in Christ and friends who were part of this with their prayers.”

But when couples come to the border seeking asylum, ICE often keeps the man in detention. That’s what happened to Hernández, who was eventually sent to the Richwood Correctional Center, a jail in rural Louisiana with a well-documented history of abuse. When the couple spoke for the last time on October 9, Hernández had just gotten bad news. The next court date in his asylum case wouldn’t be until late January, nearly four months away. He sounded hopeless and said he couldn’t endure more detention. Hernández knew he was at a for-profit jail and figured he wouldn’t get out as long as someone was making money off of him.

On Tuesday, Hernández, 43, was found unresponsive in his cell. Medical officials pronounced him dead soon after. His death, which is still under investigation, appeared to be a suicide by hanging.

Several Richwood detainees told me that Hernández went on a hunger strike after his January court date was set. They say he was then sent to one of the solitary confinement cells that Spanish-speaking detainees call “punishment rooms” and “wells.” ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox confirmed that Hernández was placed in “administrative segregation for observation and monitoring due to a declared hunger strike” on October 10 and that he was alone in his cell. On Wednesday afternoon, ICE released a statement saying that Hernández appeared to have died by “self-inflicted strangulation.”

Hernández’s death is the first to occur as part of ICE’s rapid shift toward detaining asylum seekers at for-profit jails in Louisiana and Mississippi. This year, ICE has started using eight new jails and prisons in those states as part of its rapid expansion of its detention capacity. Six of them in Louisiana, including Richwood, are run by LaSalle Corrections and were built to hold criminals, a population that is in shorter supply as a result of the state’s criminal justice reforms. The other two are operated by the private prison giants GEO Group and CoreCivic. ICE is now keeping roughly 8,000 people in Louisiana, up from about 1,600 on an average day in 2016. Congress has directed ICE to detain fewer people, but the Department of Homeland Security has gotten around legislators by transferring money to ICE from other accounts.  

Hernández’s death is the first to occur as part of ICE’s rapid shift toward detaining asylum seekers at for-profit jails in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Many of the new ICE facilities were once notorious for mistreating their criminal populations. Complaints by inmates at the CoreCivic prison in Mississippi about inadequate medical care, staff mistreatment, and rotten food contributed to a 2012 riot that left one guard dead and 20 people injured. A 2016 investigation by the Nation documented three cases where immigrants serving criminal sentences at the prison died following poor medical treatment. At Richwood, two inmates died in 2015 as a result of what lawsuits allege was severe neglect and abuse. In 2016, Richwood guards pepper-sprayed handcuffed detainees in the face then engaged in a criminal conspiracy to cover up the assault.

Mother Jones first learned of Hernández’s death on Tuesday afternoon from a woman with a brother detained at Richwood who had told her of the death. Later on Tuesday, another Richwood detainee and a lawyer representing migrants at Richwood told me the same thing. The second detainee was a Venezuelan who had heard about the death from a jail employee he trusts. The employee had told him that Hernández hanged himself with his clothes and a bag used to store personal belongings. The Venezuelan said he also saw a guard open a small window that looked into Hernández’s cell. After apparently seeing Hernández’s body, the detainee heard the guard say, “What the fuck?” Another employee looked like he was going to vomit, the Venezuelan added. 

About 90 minutes after he was pronounced dead, an ICE official called Gutierrez to tell her that her husband had died in the agency’s custody. She pressed for more details, but the official didn’t provide any. Gutierrez told me on Wednesday that she had heard people were saying her husband had committed suicide. Hernández had never mentioned self-harm, and she didn’t believe the reports. Gutierrez described her husband as a tranquil man of few words who fought for what he believed in. She said he’d left Cuba after repeatedly clashing with the government.

Gutierrez and Hernández. Gutierrez shared the photo on Facebook on Wednesday with the caption, “I know you are with God.”

Courtesy of Gutierrez

“Today, it was my husband, but how many have there been before?” Gutierrez asked in Spanish, “How many more will there be if we don’t get this under control?”

She continued, “Sadly, we can’t understand what’s going on in this country that the whole world comes to take refuge in. Look at what’s happening today. You just don’t know if they’re getting asylum or dying.” 

Hernández was the first asylum seeker to lose his life at Richwood, but several inmates died there previously as a result of what lawsuits describe as severe mistreatment. In October 2015, Vernon White and Erie Moore were placed together in an isolation cell following erratic behavior and fighting, according to lawsuits later brought on their behalf. They fought the next morning, but prison officials still kept them detained together. That afternoon, White began banging on the door of the cell before Moore attacked him. After about 10 minutes of struggle, White’s body disappeared from surveillance footage. Seventeen minutes later, a guard delivered food to the cell without noticing that Moore had already killed or incapacitated White. Moore then ate from both meals without disruption.

Finally, 46 minutes after the attack, guards entered the cell to remove what appeared to be White’s dead body. Christopher Loring and other guards then pepper-sprayed and severely beat Moore. Investigators from the local sheriff’s office arrived at the jail to find Moore lying on his back, unresponsive. He was airlifted to a hospital and died there a month later. (The lawsuit filed on White’s behalf was settled in July 2018 for an undisclosed sum; Moore’s case is still in court.)

A year later, Loring and four other guards participated in an assault and cover-up that led to criminal convictions. In March 2018, the Justice Department charged the Richwood guards with pepper-spraying inmates “while the inmates were kneeling on the floor, in an area of the jail with no surveillance cameras, and while the inmates were handcuffed, compliant, and not posing a physical threat to anyone.” The guards then conspired to blame an inmate for the incident by submitting false reports. Loring later lied to the FBI. He pleaded guilty in March, shortly before asylum seekers started arriving at Richwood.

Within 24 hours of the apparent suicide, another detainee at Richwood attempted to take his life.

In Richwood, a majority-black town of about 3,300 in northern Louisiana, the shift to holding immigrants was controversial. “We do not need these strange prisoners coming to the town,” a resident said at the time. “We would be afraid to try to come home, our children playing.” The mayor defended the decision, noting on a local podcast that ICE was set to pay the jail more than twice as much as the state of Louisiana. A portion of those funds would go to the town government. “You’re looking at somewhere around $470,000 a year for us to do just about nothing,” the mayor said.

After facing protests at its detention centers in progressive states like California, ICE has been happy to shift immigrants to cheaper jails in Louisiana that are far from lawyers and close to conservative judges. The new LaSalle jails are all in the Western District of Louisiana, where President Donald Trump has appointed five of the six federal judges.

Hernández repeatedly asked to be released on parole, but ICE denied each request. An internal government report obtained by BuzzFeed News shows that his last request was denied on October 8, the day before his court hearing. According to ICE’s own parole policy, the agency should probably have released him, but it had effectively ended parole in the Deep South. In 2016, the ICE field office that covers Louisiana approved 75 percent of parole requests. By 2019, that figure had dropped to zero. In September, a federal judge ordered ICE to return to following its parole policy, which requires it to release asylum seekers who don’t pose a flight risk or a threat to the community. Attorneys with clients in Louisiana have seen little or no change since the judge’s decision. (Cubans are particularly unlikely to be flight risks because they become eligible for green cards under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act one year after they’re released.)

Hernández had often told his wife that his goal was to make it home. “For him, the United States was home,” she explained. “His hope. His future, for his family, for him.” He hoped to escape Cuba. Instead, she said the opposite had happened as “his life in the United States became hell.”

Sadly, Hernández’s story is not unique. Within 24 hours of his apparent suicide, another detainee at Richwood attempted to take his life.

On Tuesday afternoon, shortly after Hernández died, I spoke with Manuel, a Honduran asylum seeker who has been detained at Richwood for six months. I asked how he was doing. “Pretty bad, to be honest,” he said. “Being in a punishment cell isn’t easy. Spending more than 40 days without seeing the light of the sun. It’s been torture for me. Torture by ICE.” The 27-year-old, who is gay, said he’d been sent to solitary confinement after telling a judge he had been hit by a fellow inmate—an incident that occurred after the inmate called him a homophobic slur. He was brought to what he described as a blood-stained cell. After about a month there, he began to hear voices. He thought of killing himself with a knife, but couldn’t get one.

Hernández was the first asylum seeker to lose his life at Richwood, but several inmates died there previously as a result of what lawsuits describe as severe mistreatment.

He was kept in that solitary cell for more than 40 days, then transferred to another windowless isolation cell, this time with a cellmate, where he spent the next two months. He was allowed outside for an hour a day and could bathe three times per week. Manuel considered committing suicide by jumping off the top level of his bunk bed head first, but he feared it wouldn’t kill him. Homophobia and racism on the part of ICE officials made him feel “that his life was worth nothing,” he said with obvious pain.

An investigation by the Project on Government Oversight showed that about 40 percent of people placed in solitary confinement at ICE detention centers have mental illnesses. The Atlantic reported in September that the Trump administration has been far more likely to send people to solitary because of “suicide risk” or as “protective custody for LGBT people.” (Cox did not respond to questions about Manuel.)

Manuel’s first video call with a psychologist lasted no more than five minutes, he said. The second lasted maybe 20. The psychologist prescribed sleeping pills to deal with the voices and nightmares, and Prozac for his sadness. She also wrote a letter to ICE saying that he was potentially suicidal, he said. Before we hung up, I asked if he could call again the next day. “Sure, no problem,” he replied.

On Wednesday, I got a call, but it wasn’t from Manuel. Another detainee, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation, said Manuel had hanged himself around 6:30 that morning. A guard found him unconscious, but he survived the suicide attempt, the detainee said. He’d been taken to the hospital and brought back to the jail.  

The detainee and I had spoken the day before. He didn’t know about Hernández’s death at the time but didn’t doubt that months of detention and parole denials could drive someone to take his own life. “If someone killed himself, that’s why,” he said. “Because of that, I’ve seen many shattered people crying on the floor because they can’t take it. Because of that, I’ve seen people ask to self-deport, even though they’ll be killed when they get back to their countries.”

Trump Offers Big Middle Finger to Emoluments Clause

President Trump has announced that next year’s G7 meeting will be held at the Trump National Doral in Miami. His acting chief of staff explains that there’s nothing wrong with this:

MULVANEY: “Again, anticipating your questions, how is this this is not emolument violation? Will the president profit from this? The president pretty much made it very clear since he got here, he doesn’t profit from being here. He has no interest in profiting from being here.” pic.twitter.com/wLY55ZHA5V

— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) October 17, 2019

To summarize for those of you who are a little slow, Trump won’t profit from this because he says he won’t profit from this. Any questions?

I wonder what Trump has promised Mick Mulvaney in return for being willing to say stuff like this in public? It’s gotta be something.

“That Would Be Wrong”

Watergate vs. Ukrainegate:

According to HR Haldeman, what Richard Nixon said upon being told he needed to pay off the Watergate burglars to keep them quiet: “That would be wrong.”

Gordon Sondland on the effort to get Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden: “Withholding foreign aid in order to pressure a foreign government to take such steps would be wrong.”

The Ukraine scandal is looking more Watergatish every day. It feels more Watergatish too. There’s just so much wrongness it’s hard to keep track.

“Steely Yet Compassionate”: Barack Obama Eulogizes Elijah Cummings

Former President Barack Obama expressed his grief over the death of Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) Thursday, calling the late House Oversight Committee chairman “steely yet compassionate, principled yet open to new perspectives.”

“He showed us all not only the importance of checks and balances within our democracy, but also the necessity of good people stewarding it,” Obama wrote in a statement. “True to the giants of progress he followed into public service, Chairman Cummings stood tallest and most resolute when our country needed him the most.”

Cummings, one of Obama’s earliest supporters for president, co-chaired his campaign in Maryland in 2008.

Read the statement below:

Obama: Cummings “stood tallest and most resolute when our country needed him the most.” pic.twitter.com/Mkiug1j7PL

— Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) October 17, 2019

Britain and EU Agree on Brexit Deal

Hooray! We have a Brexit agreement.

But I’m a little puzzled. I may be misreading something, but once you cut through the fog it appears that everyone has agreed that there will be no customs border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Instead, goods will travel freely between Ireland (part of the EU) and Northern Ireland (not part of the EU) and Britain will then sort out all applicable customs and tariffs internally. In other words, there’s now a de facto border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain.

But this has always been one of the options on the table. Why is it acceptable now if it wasn’t two years ago?

Part of the answer, I suppose, is that October 31 is increasingly looking like a real deadline, and the prospect of a hard no-Brexit has concentrated everyone’s minds. Another possibility is that it’s not acceptable even now: we won’t know until Parliament votes on it. If Labour opposes the deal and DUP opposes the deal, it might fail. We should know soon.

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