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From Our Archives, When the Left Was Worried It Lost (Again)

Each Friday, we bring you a look at our archives to propel you into the weekend.

The historian Eric Hobsbawm’s last section of his final book in a series tracing the history of the world over the past few centuries is titled “The Landslide.” It begins in the early 1970s. He published the book in 1994. For the left—and Hobsbawm was a leftist, a committed one; his critics would lambast his staying aligned with communists even after the terrors of Stalin’s reign were revealed—the 1990s seem to have been frustrating times.

Looking back, what happened? Did the left lose? This is the era in which some decided there was an end to history. (That’s off now, by the way.) Bill Clinton was coming to power in the United States as an austerity-minded Democrat; Tony Blair was on the rise in the United Kingdom (Hobsbawm warned that Blair was “Thatcherism in trousers.”) And, of course, the Berlin Wall had fallen.

There’s an excellent new documentary about Hobsbawm on the YouTube channel of the London Review of Books. You don’t need to really know anything about him, or his work, to enjoy it. (I’m sitting here with a massive reading list, unsure exactly how this keeps happening—some great thinker of some age unknown to me.) It traces something we hear passingly as the rise of neoliberalism. (And please forgive me my sins, dear Lord; you do not have to email me about how exactly you define neoliberalism—I just admitted I learned about Hobsbawm this week; I’m working on it.)

Hobsbawm’s trajectory neatly traces the narrative I’ve seen in Mother Jones’ archives. In the 1990s, there is a crisis, and it is pegged as having started sometime in the 1970s. In 1996 we published a short piece titled “What’s Left?” Here’s what we asked Noam Chomsky and a few others:

What happened to the movement that integrated America, stopped the costly war in Vietnam, and opened workplace doors for women? Several commentators offer opinions on where the left went wrong and where it should go.

It’s an interesting phrasing of the question. Hobsbawm seems to note that this is a world phenomenon, a global wreckage of the post-USSR order. We phrase it more as a moral failing in the United States. There is also an idea that what happened here was not the forces of history driving austerity politics and toppling a “golden age” after the war (Hobsbawm’s description of it). Instead, it is us. We, the left, have failed. We “went wrong.”

Three of the four people we asked in 1996 answered something akin to: Identity (or grievance) politics is splitting up the left. The other answer says the left kept taking in false moderates and centrists. (Hobsbawm was not a lover of identity politics. It had whiffs of a nationalism he disliked and feared from his experience living in Berlin as Hitler rose to power.)

I’d be curious if this “What’s left?” question would be answered differently today. Or if the question would be phrased in this way—as in what we did wrong. Some would still lambast identity politics (I disagree); others would hate the left’s flirtations with centrist austerity (I find this appealing). The most provocative thing may be the degree to which, ironically, leftists rarely focus on the larger structure of this debate. The grand forces of history are cast aside. Isn’t that what we did?

Planes, Trains, and Working Women

The carpenters training facility near Pittsburgh looked just like the sort of place where President Joe Biden would roll out a jobs and infrastructure plan. There was the circular saw perched on a workbench, easy to spot near the phalanx of American flags behind Biden’s lectern. The emblem of the carpenters’ union, a jack plane within an interlocked ruler and compass, hung high on the wall, perfectly framed in photographs of the president in profile. And then, of course, there was the location itself: Pittsburgh, a city still synonymous with the grind and glow of steel manufacturing more than half a century after much of the industry had left.

The setting matched the string of Bidenisms the president unspooled early in his remarks. “Wall Street didn’t build this country,” Biden declared. “You, the great middle class, built this country, and unions built the middle class.” But something happened halfway through his speech. The optics conjuring white men in hard hats no longer applied. Biden spoke of the “enormous financial and personal strain” families faced trying to care for children and aging parents. He talked about the professional caregivers—”disproportionately women, and women of color, and immigrants”—who have been “unseen, underpaid, and undervalued.” There in the carpenters training center, a new working class was being joined to the cultural memory of the old one.

Biden’s plan has plenty of line items that conform to the “infrastructure” of the popular imagination: Roads and bridges got their due, and Amtrak Joe called for an $80 billion boost in funding for trains. But about a fifth of the $2 trillion in the American Jobs Plan was devoted to “caregiving infrastructure,” Biden’s term for the ecosystem of workers and services that take care of older and disabled Americans. That proposal, Biden promised, would provide “better wages, benefits, and opportunities for millions of people who will be able to get to work in an economy that works for them.”

Within days, Republicans had seized on the caregiving provisions as their main line of attack. “When people think about infrastructure, they’re thinking about roads, bridges, ports, and airports,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told Fox News the Sunday after Biden’s announcement. “President Biden’s proposal is about anything but infrastructure.” The following Tuesday, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) pointed specifically to the $400 billion Biden had designated for “elder care,” in her terms. “I don’t think any of those things are infrastructure, but you know what is??? THE WALL,” tweeted Donald Trump Jr., a characteristically oafish response to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) assertion that caregiving, child care, and paid leave all counted as such.

The Washington press corps soaked up the debate and even began to referee it. A week after Biden’s announcement, Politico declared the caregiving portion of Biden’s proposal “not even close to infrastructure.” Democrats countered by portraying the GOP as old fuds unable to grapple with the realities of a 21st-century economy. “Infrastructure is not just the roads we get a horse and buggy across,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki quipped during a briefing.

The semantic argument obscured a remarkable aspect of Biden’s proposal: It’s the first time a president of either party has attempted an economic recovery focused on women workers. In the coming weeks, the White House plans to release another plan that is expected to include similarly sweeping changes to how the country addresses child care and paid family leave. “There is a real recognition, in a new way, of how not investing in care is a huge liability for our economic health,” Rakeen Mabud, chief economist of the Groundwork Collaborative, a left-leaning think tank, tells me. “It’s actually really, really great for our economy, and supports some of the people who have historically been most left out in our labor market policies.”

Joe Biden speaks at a SEIU summit 2019.

Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP

Less than a fifth of FDR’s Works Progress Administration jobs went to women in the 1930s. President Obama’s economic advisers initially estimated 42 percent of the jobs created by his 2009 stimulus package would go to women, but during the first two years of recovery, men gained 768,000 jobs and women lost 218,000. Since Obama tackled that last crisis, however, there has been a profound shift in how work that’s typically coded female gets assessed in terms of the overall economy. “The potential here is actually transformative,” says Ai-jen Poo, the executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “Because we think about it from an economic standpoint, investing in good care jobs is not only beneficial to those workers and their families.” There’s also been a shift in the nature of the crisis itself: By some estimates, the pandemic has set women’s economic equality back a whole generation.

It hasn’t been easy to get Democrats to accept care as infrastructure; Biden and some of his aides struggled with the concept themselves during the campaign. They eventually got there thanks to the organizing efforts of women workers and activists, who understood that bettering women’s economic conditions would require a large-scale conceptual realignment about what qualifies as “stimulus” or “infrastructure”—about the very nature of work. 

To be a woman is to accept the fate that your life, at some point or another, will revolve around the care of a family member. To be a woman in the United States is to accept that you will either pay monstrous sums for that care or do it yourself—likely, at some expense to your job.

The average cost of full-time infant care in the US is more than $16,000 per year. That’s if it’s even available at all: Nearly half of all Americans live in “child care deserts,” according to a 2018 analysis from the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. The costs of child care have grown twice as fast as overall inflation since the 1990s, causing an estimated 13 percent decline in employment among mothers with young children. That comes at a personal cost to women, 1.3 million more of whom could enter the workforce and earn a collective $130 billion across their lifetimes if the country adopted a universal child care system, according to a new study from the National Women’s Law Center and Columbia University. It also comes at a macroeconomic one: The US could see a $210.2 billion boost to GDP if child care costs were capped at 10 percent of family income, according to a study from CAP. 

A similar dynamic holds among adults caring for elderly and disabled family members. Karen Shen, a Harvard University PhD student in economics, discovered what she calls the “most productive daughter” phenomenon, which suggests that states with weak long-term care programs under Medicaid are highly correlated with adult daughters being forced out of the workforce to care for parents. And that applies only to low-income families. Over half of adults 65 and older will require care that Medicare typically doesn’t cover. That ends up being a massive cost, $266,000 on average, of which more than half is paid out of pocket by those seniors and their families.

The exorbitant amounts of money spent on any form of caregiving mainly cover the cost of labor, but that still translates to near-poverty wages for care workers. Many of them live like Joyce Barnes, who’s worked as a personal health aide in Richmond, Virginia, for more than three decades. Barnes, who is Black, works 10 hours a day, five or six days a week, preparing meals, washing clothes, and doing housework for a set of clients who can’t care for themselves. She does all this for less than $10 an hour, a wage that forces her to keep her grocery bills limited to just $25 per week—”Oodles of Noodles with tuna fish,” she says—but also puts her just above the threshold to qualify for food stamps. Barnes earns less per hour than her grandson does working at a car wash—as well as her grandson’s girlfriend, who has a pet sitting gig. “You pay someone to take care of your dog $15 an hour,” Barnes says. “but you won’t pay someone to take care of your parents that kind of money?”

Barnes earns just a bit less than the median hourly salary for personal care workers, $11.57 per hour, pay so low it leaves nearly a fifth of those workers living in poverty. The median salary for child care workers is a bit lower at $11.42 per hour, a wage considered livable in only 10 states. Ninety percent of domestic workers are women, and half are women of color.

A resident has his temperature checked at an assisted living facility in Boston.

Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe/Getty

Stated plainly, the economics go something like this: Women are handing over most or all of their paychecks to other women, who barely earn a living wage, just for the opportunity to enter the workforce—even if the primary purpose of that time in the workforce is to earn money in order to pay for care. It’s a system that holds women back, financially and professionally, every step of the way.

The pandemic inflicted fresh cruelty on already-untenable circumstances. Women bore the brunt of job losses last year—they lost 5.4 million jobs, in all—as nationwide shutdowns brought industries that employ the most women, such as retail and hospitality, to the point of collapse. As of February, nearly 3 million women remained out of the workforce, a product of caregiving responsibilities as much as employment conditions. The loss of income forced families to pull family members from child care centers and nursing homes, many of which shuttered as clients departed. And professional caregivers faced the choice of leaving the workforce to take care of their own families or exposing themselves to the virus in high-risk work settings, often without sick leave.

Right before the pandemic in January 2020, economists had heralded the latest US jobs report showing that women, for the first time since the Great Recession, accounted for more than half of the US workforce. Now, there haven’t been so few working women since the Reagan administration. And while that topline number before COVID painted a rosy picture for working women, the pandemic proved any reading of success “was built on a house of sand,” says Melissa Boteach, the policy director for the National Women’s Law Center. “It was built through the sheer will and determination and innovation of women trying to navigate an economy that wasn’t designed to support them.”

It didn’t have to be this way. The US almost had universal child care in the 1970s when Congress passed a bill with wide bipartisan support, only for President Richard Nixon to veto it, warning that it would favor “communal approaches to child-rearing over against the family-centered approach.” Nixon was doing a bit of red-baiting, but his rationale spoke to what historian Gabriel Winant calls the “porous boundary” between family responsibility and women’s labor. “The care economy historically rose out of and remains contiguous with, in various ways, the institution of marriage and family,” explains Winant, whose book The Next Shift documents how Pittsburgh transformed from a manufacturing economy to a care-centered town. “It was decided that it was closer to the kinds of institutions of servitude or marriage than it was to the factory.”

So when politicians have advanced the need for care work and the rights of the people who do it, their rationale has tended to be grounded in moral or educational terms, not economic ones. Back in the ’90s, Congress passed the Family Medical Leave Act, which grants 12 weeks of unpaid leave to workers so they could care for themselves or ailing family members—an acknowledgment of the need for care, but not its worthiness as work. The Clinton administration also made massive investments in Head Start, a federally funded care and education program for young children living in poverty, couched in terms of childhood development. “When I came into the Senate, women in the workforce were supposed to keep silent about the issues that were challenging for them—whether it was family leave or sick leave or caregiving for parents,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who has served in the Senate since 1992, tells me.

“Caregiving was largely seen as a personal burden,” Poo of the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance explains. “If you couldn’t figure out how to afford child care or care for your aging parent, it was somehow your personal failure—like you didn’t have enough money or you didn’t save, or you’re a bad parent or a bad daughter.” Nothing was really being done for professional caregivers when Poo began organizing nannies and home care workers in New York City in the late 1990s. “For most of that time, we were really trying to crack the nut of ‘How do these jobs become better jobs?’” Poo tells me. “The work has been devalued, and not even considered real work. We still refer to it as ‘help.’” In 2007, she co-founded the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a network of activist groups that pushed for basic worker protections at the state and local level. Care in Action, an affiliated political group, has also become an organizing powerhouse in Democratic politics—most recently in Georgia, where a legacy of domestic worker organizing was instrumental in flipping both US Senate seats blue. (“We wouldn’t even be having this conversation if it wasn’t for Black women in Georgia,” Boteach says.)

At the same time, the Service Employees International Union waged similar campaigns as it fought state and local governments for the right to organize child care and health care workers and guarantee them basic protections. Last year, SEIU won a 16-year fight in California to provide early childhood educators with collective bargaining rights. “When I first joined our union in the 1980s, the big slogan of the women that were organizing was ‘Invisible No More,’” SEIU President Mary Kay Henry tells me. “I would say our contribution has been to make the provider a part of the conversation and establish that this is work that has value.” 

SEIU and its allies took that message to the White House during Obama’s second term and pressed the president to extend overtime and fair wage protections to 2 million home care workers, which he did through executive order. Henry kept the pressure on when Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2016; Ann O’Leary, one of Clinton’s senior policy advisers, recalls that Henry was the first person to refer to the “care economy.” Henry found a like-minded ally in O’Leary, who had done extensive policy research on the lack of federally funded child care, elder care, and paid leave as crucial hurdles for women’s economic parity. Yet when Clinton unveiled a child care proposal that touched on both affordability and workforce concerns, her pollsters discouraged her from overinvesting in the issue. “It didn’t poll well,” O’Leary recalls. “They didn’t think it was going to resonate with people.”

Things weren’t looking much better at the outset of the 2020 Democratic primary. In 2019, Caring Across Generations, a coalition of women- and worker-focused groups, unveiled a proposal for “universal family care.” No 2020 Democratic primary candidates took up the plan, but a few of the Democrats nodded to those aims. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), for example, proposed a universal child care plan premised both on relieving families’ financial burden and raising wages for those who performed that work.

Biden hadn’t been one of those candidates. His labor plan included a push for a $15 minimum wage and strengthened union protections for workers broadly, universal pre-K for three- and four-year-olds, and not much else. His campaign had been putting together a child care proposal just as the pandemic shoved the economy over a cliff last March, and Biden and his advisers began to reevaluate those less ambitious goals. The campaign knew its potential biggest weakness against Trump could be that the Republican president had, before the pandemic, overseen a mostly growing economy. So Biden wanted to focus on his vision of rebuilding jobs after the pandemic, which the campaign termed its Build Back Better plan. A large part would be manufacturing, innovation, and a traditional infrastructure package coupled with green investments—a serious, if not emphatic, nod to the Green New Deal.

But there was no way a Democratic presidential candidate’s jobs plan in 2020 could center on a bunch of white men in hard hats. Enter the “care economy,” a $775 billion investment Biden’s campaign envisioned to expand access to child care and long-term care for the elderly and disabled, while also providing millions of good-paying jobs, mainly through the existing Medicare and Child Care and Development Block Grant programs. The idea would give Biden his best chance to hit the massive job creation numbers he sought. And it would be an image boon for the candidate: A 77-year-old white man would put forth a jobs plan with a major emphasis on women—and women of color in particular.

But some aides, many of whom had served with Biden since his Senate or vice presidential days, wanted to put traditional manufacturing and physical infrastructure projects more front and center, unsure of how human-centered projects fit into that vision, according to several sources with knowledge of campaign dynamics. On the care front, they more easily grasped the job potential for child care, since that allowed mothers to head back into the workforce, than for long-term care, a less familiar idea. “How do you talk about it as jobs?” was a commonly asked question.

Biden himself liked the sentiment behind the caregiving proposal when he was first presented with it last spring. It was a matter he could relate to personally. He’d relied on his sister to help raise his two boys after his wife and daughter died in a car accident, and later he needed adult care for his son, Beau, as he received treatment for the brain cancer that eventually killed him. But Biden struggled with how to frame the sales pitch. Voters understood bridges and roads as job-creating projects. They knew child care and elder care as family programs. Infrastructure is from Mars. Care is from Venus.

The challenge would be to collapse the distinction, and recent economic research backed them up. Federal investments in care yielded twice as many jobs as similar investments in infrastructure, according to a 2016 study from the Economic Policy Institute, and it would also free up women to participate in the economy, leading to even greater employment. If the workers were being paid fairly, that would spur a number of “respending” jobs, the sorts of jobs that get created when people have money to spend. This was all the more important given that care is expected to be the fastest-growing segment of the economy over the next decade, according to the Bureau for Labor Statistics. The jobs would be there anyway—they might as well be good. “I was getting to the point where I had to say, ‘Care job creation is vastly superior, but physical infrastructure is still good, also,’” says Josh Bivens, the EPI economist who worked on the study, recalling conversations with colleagues. On the day the campaign launched the caregiving proposal, Bivens, at the behest of Biden advisers, published a blog post asserting the campaign’s plan would, in fact, support 3 million new jobs. 

Despite its job-creating possibilities, the campaign generally didn’t call those policies “infrastructure,” and the term appeared just a handful of times in the caregiving platform. As aides developed the Build Back Better agenda, Caring Across Generations circulated a draft of a “care infrastructure” proposal, an update on universal family care for the COVID age, and its development reached Biden’s team. But Biden advisers who worked on the campaign’s caregiving proposal recall that the term “infrastructure” was mentioned but never dominant in their discussions on how to sell the idea.

Advocates kept pushing for more, and the unity task forces between Biden’s campaign and allies of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the aftermath of the primary served as a prime opportunity. “I made a point of talking to every labor person in every task force, and put in my plug for the caregiving economy to get reinforced,” Henry, who served on the health care task force, tells me. “I saw this all as a way to awaken people’s understanding, who don’t normally think of caregiving as part of the nation’s infrastructure.”


Advocates worried Biden’s commitment might waver once he got to the White House—especially as some congressional Democrats appeared to lose their appetite for ambitious plans after they passed $1.9 trillion in COVID stimulus in March. Amid reports that business interests had been lobbying the administration to drop the caregiving priorities in favor of physical capital projects, activists sent a group of well-respected liberal economists to meet with White House aides to counter the pushback. They argued that caregiving is a public good, and that its reach across society qualified it as infrastructure. “If you’re going for gender equity, racial equity, and worker power, this is about as good as it gets,” says Heidi Shierholz, who served as the Labor Department’s chief economist under Obama and was at that meeting. The $400 billion to expand in-home health care was one of the last line items added to the jobs plan as aides mulled pushing it into the second package that has yet to be released. It was primarily SEIU’s last-minute push that tilted the scales into acting sooner, according to the Washington Post.

Caregiving proponents have a key ally in Congress who will try to hold Biden to his promises. Ever since the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a mother of four and grandmother of nine, has privately told Democratic allies on numerous occasions that a federal child care plan is her must-pass social policy agenda item before she retires. On a private call with activists last month, Pelosi insisted that all three pieces of the care economy—child care, long-term care for the elderly and disabled, and paid leave—need to pass together. The White House, meanwhile, has sent the women economists serving in administration on a media tour to emphasize how crucial caregiving is to the ongoing economic recovery. (The White House declined interview requests and requests for comment.)

Caregiving advocates won’t give the White House their seal of approval until after the American Families Plan is revealed. SEIU’s Henry tells me she wants to see the “same set of principles” laid out for long-term care in the jobs plan applied to child care providers, as Biden’s campaign stipulated. No one on Capitol Hill doubts the sincerity of the White House’s overarching aims. Of greater concern are the specifics. Biden’s campaign platform promised to include the 800,000-person waiting list that currently exists for home-based care, a promise that’s absent from the White House proposal. There also aren’t any details on how the money ought to be spent, leaving that to Congress. Whatever route they choose could have enormous implications for precisely how much can be done to improve workers’ wages and alleviate high costs for families. “We need to be able to do the policy that ensures that we have $15 minimum wage, that we have bargaining power for these workers,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who has been behind several caregiving bills, tells me. “Otherwise, we’re not going to be able to get women back into the economy. We’re not going to be able to ensure that these jobs are not just crappy jobs.”

The policies are still extremely popular in polls of voters—even among Republicans. Yet Biden’s commitment to pushing this part of his agenda at all costs remains an open question. “What is their strategy to pass this?” Jayapal adds. “It can’t just be putting it out there and getting everyone’s hopes up.” For the party’s left flank, that means eliminating the Senate filibuster, which remains a nonstarter for moderate Senate Democrats. Instead, the White House has embarked on a circuit of bipartisan meetings, an undertaking that at least gives the impression they’re trying to court lawmakers across the aisle. Caregiving—child care, in particular—has drawn some support from Republican lawmakers over the course of the pandemic, and there’s reason to believe it could be a subject for common ground, albeit with a much more limited scope than what Biden has proposed. 

But so far, the GOP has refused to give Biden any wins. The cohort of moderate senators who could theoretically back a Biden caregiving proposal have floated $600 to $800 billion as the amount they might approve for all infrastructure. If that persists, much of the money needed for Biden’s proposals to expand access to child care and elder care can pass through the reconciliation process. But thanks to budget rules, reconciliation likely can’t be used to pass the mechanisms to make sure the jobs that are getting funded are, in fact, good ones. Fair wages and worker protections—the pieces nearest and dearest to Biden—require all 60 votes. 

The House is hoping to pass a jobs bill by the Fourth of July, and the Senate will take it up sometime thereafter—perhaps for a vote before their August recess, but likely not until after. All the while, shots will go into arms, businesses will open, workers will travel freely on vacations they’ve waited a year and a half to take. Most kids will be back in classrooms next fall. By the end of the year, the unemployment rate is expected to look much less dire. 

And when that happens, will anyone remember the crisis? Not the pandemic, but the one that preceded it—the daily struggle of mothers, daughters, sisters, and nieces living in a country that demands they do it all and offers no help in return, and of the caregivers who tend to our most valued family members but are valued less than the workers who walk our dogs. And will there still be a will to use the tools of government to fix the inequities?

“The pandemic has made it visible for this short moment, for this short window,” Boteach of the National Women’s Law Center says. “And while we have this window, we need to not forget what this past year has taught us.”

The Oscar-Nominated Writers of Judas and the Black Messiah “Just Wanted to Make a Good Film for Fred”

In Judas and the Black Messiah, the life of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, a revolutionary socialist who was committed to civil rights, is portrayed in an honest and complete way. That alone is a notable and somewhat unexpected achievement for relatively big budget, big distribution (Warner Brothers) film. 

It’s also a notable and somewhat unexpected achievement for Keith and Kenny Lucas, who, along with director Shaka King and co-writer Will Berson, wrote the semi-biopic’s Academy Award-nominated screenplay. The Hollywood honor for the 35-year-old identical twins arrives after they built careers in comedy, including standup, appearances in 22 Jump Street and Arrested Development, and staring roles in the series Friends of the People and Lucas Bros. Moving Co.

The Lucas brothers stumbled onto Hampton’s story when they were still in school, and someday vowed to retell it. At the time, Kenny was dabbling in Marxism. Both brothers still cite Hegel, a German philosopher whose historical theories were an antecedent for Karl Marx, as an intellectual influence. I spoke with them last month (an edited version of our conversation is below) after the film notched five Oscar nominations, including one for best picture—a historic haul for a movie made by an all Black team of producers.

Even in the midst of a lengthy media tour, they seemed unexhausted and upbeat, about both the movie’s reception and renewed prospects for racial justice. In some ways, the United States has regressed since Hampton’s time, but the Lucas brothers seemed hopeful that the Black Lives Matter protests of the past year have built a foundation that can eventually amount to something that would belatedly fulfill Hampton’s vision.  

Mother Jones: How did you guys come to want to do a sort of biopic on Fred Hampton? You guys have been kind of kicking around this idea for years?

Kenny Lucas: Yeah, we had been. We had just got into the industry, I think in 2010. And then right around 2012 or 2013 we started to formulate the idea. We didn’t start to officially pitch it until late 2013, early 2014. 

We came across Fred and his story in college. And it was, of course, a very tragic story, but one that we’ve always sort of just remembered. So when we got into the industry one of our stated goals was to get the movie made just because we really wanted to help cement his legacy as a civil rights leader.

Keith Lucas: More like, secure his legacy. I think it’s unfair to history that he’s not more widely known. Because of his message and his ideas and his beliefs and what he was striving for, I think that it’s just a worthy message to know. So it felt like it was imperative to get a film like this made.

MJ: Did you worry that highlighting him accurately might backfire? The idea of someone being an avowed socialist stresses a lot of people out, especially people who lived through the Cold War.

Kenny: Yeah, there’s always the potential for people to react negatively to the portrayal of a socialist, America has this sort of allergic reaction to anything that is socialist. But I felt like Fred’s personality, his story, his demeanor, his message, while certainly influenced and infused with Marx’s ideology, I felt like it hinted at a universal message that could connect to anyone across political ideologies. So I was never too concerned, because I was very confident that people would just love Fred. And they did. 

Keith: We use his actual speeches. You can’t dilute his message if you’re using his words. As Kenny pointed out, once you find out about Fred, you fall in love with Fred, and you appreciate his message, irrespective of your political ideology—now, at least, though it certainly wasn’t like that in the 60s.

MJ: I think the movie is convincing in that regard. He’s a sympathetic, inspiring figure. On a logistical level, did you guys get pushback on being very open about his politics? Was there any point where they were like, “No,” or people were like, “Hey, maybe let’s sanitize this?”

Kenny: I give Warner Brothers mad respect in this regard. They were never trying to make a sanitized message. If anything, I think they wanted us to be as factual as possible. So I never got the impression that they were trying to dilute Fred’s message. They were very supportive. 

Keith: They gave us complete support. The fact that we went out and brought Mama Akua [Hampton’s mother] on and brought Chairman Fred Jr. [his son] on. We really, really tried to get it as authentic as we could, in a two-hour film.

MJ: To what degree was contemporaneous politics in your mind while making this? There has been, from some segments of the liberal political sphere, this valorizing of the FBI and the CIA and the Trump era, without mind to the history of these institutions that exist in Judas and The Black Messiah, and the precedent of things like COINTELPRO.

Kenny: When we were conceiving of the idea we were definitely thinking about the current political climate. It’s hard for me to say that the FBI is fundamentally distinct from how they operated in the 60s because there’re still serious institutional problems that I think date back to Hoover’s reign. I don’t think that they ever really did an inventory to correct those sort of systemic problems. 

Keith: No, I don’t think they’ve ever had an honest confrontation of Hoover and the history of COINTELPRO. The fact that Hoover’s name is still on the FBI building… it’s a testament to the fact that we haven’t grappled with it.

MJ: Yeah, I think if you look at things like the FBI’s Black Identity Extremist designation, that, yeah, there’s a direct line to stuff like COINTELPRO.

Kenny: Right. And now they’re surveilling a lot of the activists in the Black Lives Matter movement, based on this black extremists category. Now they’ve discarded it, but I’m sure there’s some other way, there’s some other legal loophole they’re using to justify surveillance and violating the constitutional rights of activists who critique the state. They always have some excuse.

MJ: Do you worry that the through-line whatever persisted back then that is persisting now has a potential neutering effect on contemporary black radicalism and just radical politics in general?

Kenny: I think it necessarily has a neutering effect. The fear of being neutralized, either physically or psychologically, has to necessarily weigh on anyone who’s considering a career in activist politics. I mean, you’d be foolish not to think that. 

MJ: Another thing I thought was really interesting in the movie was Hampton’s acute understanding of politics as a struggle for power. You guys literally have him paraphrase that Clausewitz line when he says “politics is war, by other means.” I don’t want to necessarily say that that’s been lost in an understanding of contemporary politics by a lot of people, but it kind of feels like it has. Are there ideological successors to Hampton moving around still, or do you think that neutering effect has kept that from happening?

Kenny: I think there’s been a decentralization of the black radical movement in general with Black Lives Matter where we don’t have figures like King or figures like X. We’ve decided to decentralize the movement to avoid assassinations.  Tactically, I think that’s wise. You see less Hamptons and you see more of a collective will to get things done.

MJ: A lot of people would say they’re pessimistic after a summer of intense protests that did not amount to meaningful policy change. For the skeptical among us, what do people have to be hopeful for?

Kenny: Well, the George Floyd Act was passed. It’s a start in the right direction towards finally confronting the menace of policing in minority communities. Obviously, more needs to be done. I don’t think that when we started the protests, things were going to change immediately. We’re finally having the most honest conversation I think we’ve ever had about policing and minority communities. It’s going to be a dogfight, because police unions are powerful. The right-wing media ecosystem is very powerful. They have money, and they’re going to fight tooth and nail against our positions. We have to have the stamina and the will to go the distance. We can’t let apathy and nihilism and the idea that nothing can get done immediately sour our progress. We have to put our hands in the dirt, and we have to fight for legislation and fight for the things that we want to change. We have the momentum. We have to capitalize on it.

MJ: The nominations for the Academy Awards, the general critical reception—do you think that that opens the pathway for more of these kinds of movies? I don’t even know—like, a Huey Newton biopic or something like that?

Keith: I mean, you hope, right? You hope. I think that there’s been a ton of progress in black cinema over the last decade. We’ve seen some of the most inventive films come out that we’ve ever seen, from black creators. I’m generally optimistic that we can get more films like this made. With that said, it’s still going to be a dogfight. It’s always hard to get movies made. It’s especially hard to get movies made about black leaders that a lot of folks don’t necessarily understand why a movie should be made about them. I think that our film certainly opens up a few doors. And that’s all we can really do, is incremental change so that you can lead to a larger revolution. I think that that’s what we’re doing in Hollywood.

MJ: Do you ever worry about the sort of Hollywood commodification of these sorts of perspectives? On one hand, these are opportunities that you absolutely have to seize, but on an internal level, does that bother you?

Kenny: As a stand-up comedian you tend to have more control over your material and your art than other branches of the industry. So when you dabble in film, you sort of say to yourself that you’re making a concession where part of the process is commodification. Even in standup, you’re selling something and you want to be paid for it. But it’s a much higher level when you’re dealing with film because there’s more money invested, and the stakes are a bit higher. I think you accept that part of the process, because you have ambitions of touring more regularly, or you want to have a more sustained career, so you make pragmatic choices. But yeah, internally as an artist, you’re always like, “Man, my liberty is being limited.”

I would say that despite there being some degree of commodification in this process, I think this one of the most spiritually awakening processes I’ve ever been through, just because I saw so many people sacrifice so much to ensure that we honor Fred’s legacy. It was not about getting an Academy Award. That was just not thought about. We just wanted to make a good film for Fred. Because we led with that, I think everything else fell into place.

MJ: I think the movie is obviously a good movie. But were you surprised that other people saw it that way, especially the Academy? This is the same group of people who gave the Green Book best picture, which is a firmly not radical movie, and is almost antithetical to Judas

Keith: They also gave Parasite best picture. And Moonlight. So there’s certainly been a bit of evolution in the Academy where they are recognizing films that would be considered unconventional 10 years ago. It’s hard to fathom being recognized the way we’re being recognized. Even if in your head, you think it can be great, there’s still a lot of things that need to happen. We were fortunate enough to work with some really, really great filmmakers to get it there. But even once you have the final cut, you’re looking at it and you’re like, “Yeah, this feels great,” you still never know how critics are going to respond. You certainly don’t know how the Academy is going to respond. Once we received the acclaim it was a relief. We’re just glad people are appreciating the film at that level. But going into it, you can’t really think about the results so much. You have to just focus on making the best possible film. 

MJ: Does having these sorts of meta discussions ever get old or tiring? In listening to interviews with black filmmakers over the years, it feels like there always a part dedicated to acknowledging a black film renaissance, and what that means, and how Hollywood is or isn’t pushing it, and what happens going forward. It seems like a good conversation to have, but like, not one you’d want to force on people.

Kenny: We happen to be big fans of history and philosophy, and just sort of like wrestling over ideas. Whenever we have these conversations with people, I always enjoy them. I hope that it’s transcribed, and people discuss what was happening now in 50 years. I’m always consciously aware of my place in history. I actually, truly do appreciate these conversations. It could also be that I’ve been stuck in my apartment for the last year, and I just want to talk to people about anything.

Keith: Yeah, I appreciate these conversations, man. I’d rather people have these conversations as opposed to not having them. I just feel like that’s how change happens, with conversation. I want people to have them until we get to a point where we don’t have to have them.

MJ: You mentioned being influenced by philosophy. I saw that you’ve cited Hegel as a big influence. Did that sort of draw you to Fred’s ideology at all given that Fred was a Marxist and Hegel influenced Marx a lot?

Kenny: I dabbled with Marxism when I was in college. I was not committed, but I was a Marxist—started to get really heavy into German idealism. I was reading a lot of Martin Luther King Jr. and he was a big Hegel guy. I was just trying to understand King’s thought, so I jumped headfirst into German idealism. I was reading a lot of Immanuel Kant. It was a fun time, in my sophomore year of college. I think that that totally helped me to understand how to potentially construct a film narrative around Fred because I was somewhat sympathetic to his political beliefs. I mean, I have since distanced myself from German idealism…

MJ: Just so that the FBI doesn’t come after you?

Kenny: [laughing] I am very much a pragmatic, Adam Smith, libertarian. I support the crypto markets and I believe in paying my taxes.

But no, we were—and not just me, but Keith, Will, and Shaka King—we’re all very sympathetic to the subject matter. I think we were able to portray a more authentic and honest narrative than if we weren’t familiar with that form of philosophy. 

MJ: Are there other big, intellectual influences that inform your work and the perspectives that your work takes?

Keith: I was deeply influenced by pragmatism. In college, I used to study this book, The Metaphysical Club. It was about the four major thinkers behind pragmatism: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, William James, Charles Pierce, and John Dewey. It really shaped my thinking for a while. Not so much these days, but especially when I was younger.

MJ: In what ways for people who might be less familiar with pragmatism, like myself? 

Keith: It was a belief that started to manifest right around the end of the Civil War. Essentially, it eliminates metaphysics from a belief system. It’s like an extreme empiricism where you think ‘Okay, what beliefs do I have and do these beliefs work in the real world?’ That becomes your methodology in determining whether or not you have truth or not. I rejected religion. I ultimately rejected any sort of metaphysical principle that I thought was more or less an unknown. It’s a very limiting way of thinking. I think once I started to read a little bit more about quantum physics, and started to read a little bit of David Bohm I started to appreciate the wholeness of the universe a bit more. That ultimately led me to reject pragmatism, but I can’t speak for Kenny. I think that he had a different philosophical journey. 

Kenny: I think in college, I was more into the German idealism stuff. I had not fallen in love with pragmatism. I don’t know why I never did. I’ve come to appreciate it a lot more now. I feel like James is an underrated thinker and should be studied more often. But I know and I also do after law school, I came to appreciate Oliver Wendell Holmes a lot more. I think I was just a bit more attracted to the mystic aspect of philosophy, as Bertrand Russell would describe it. And then, Bohm just sort of shattered all of it because he allowed for the mystical and metaphysical but it was all grounded in rigorous scientific and mathematical formulas. His work has been most captivating to me as of late. 

Keith: And he infused Eastern philosophies. It’s not so like, Western in thought. And it’s not like, dominated by white dudes. Integrating quantum physics is something that I think every thinker needs to do now.

Businessman Charged With Foreign Lobbying Crimes Paid for Secret Trump White House Mission to Qatar

In June 2017, two former US officials, John Allen, a retired US Marine Corps four-star general, and Richard Olson, a retired State Department official and onetime ambassador to Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, traveled to Doha, Qatar, on a secretive and important mission. They were dispatched by H.R. McMaster, then national security adviser for President Donald Trump, to meet with Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. This was part of a US effort to deescalate a regional crisis. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Qatar’s rivals, had blockaded Qatar and were threatening to invade the small natural gas-rich country, which houses a large American military base. 

But the Trump White House did not rely on the US government to arrange and finance this trip. Instead, Allen asked Imaad Zuberi, an Asian  American businessman and prolific campaign contributor with ties to US and foreign officials, for help, according to people with knowledge of the trip and emails reviewed by Mother Jones. Zuberi coordinated, joined, and paid for Allen and Olson’s travel, the emails indicate. That’s notable because Zuberi later pleaded guilty to a slew of violations of foreign lobbying and campaign finance laws, along with tax evasion and obstruction of justice. He was sentenced in February to 12 years in federal prison.

Prosecutors claimed that for almost a decade Zuberi had promised government officials and others in Turkey, Libya, Sri Lanka, Bahrain, and other countries that he would wield influence in Washington on their behalf, and he used their money to make illegal campaign contributions in the United States while pocketing some of the funds. He also evaded taxes on the millions he made through these schemes and obstructed investigations of his activities, according to prosecutors.

Until 2016, Zuberi’s contributions went largely to Democrats. He was a bundler for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But after Donald Trump’s victory, Zuberi reversed course, giving heavily to Trump and the GOP. His contributions included $900,000 to Trump’s inauguration committee. That contribution became the subject of an investigation by federal prosecutors in New York, who suspected, according to people with knowledge of the probe, that Zuberi made the contribution with money received from Qataris who were hoping to win influence with Trump. Zuberi eventually pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for what prosecutors said were efforts to cover up the origin of the money. (The Trump inauguration case was combined with the separate foreign lobbying and obstruction case last year.)

In sentencing documents filed last fall, prosecutors asserted that at the time of the Doha trip, Zuberi was “secretly lobbying on behalf of Qatar” to “secure foreign policy changes from the Trump Administration.” This would mean that the guy who underwrote a secret White House mission to Qatar had been working for the Qataris. The prosecutors also said that Zuberi’s actions were investigated as part of a broader federal probe of Qatari influence efforts. According to people familiar with that investigation, federal prosecutors have impaneled a grand jury in Washington, DC.

Beau Phillips, a spokesperson for Allen, declined to respond to questions about Allen’s involvement with Zuberi and Qatar and the financing of the trip to Doha. “General Allen is not in a position to comment on these matters,” Phillips said.

Olson did not respond to inquiries. A spokesperson for the Brookings Institution, where Allen is the president, did not respond to requests for comment. Chad Kolton, a spokesperson working for Zuberi, also declined to comment.

The matter raises the question of how a man identified by the Justice Department as a criminal and Qatari agent became involved in a secret, high-level diplomatic mission to Qatar for the Trump White House.

In an attempt to appeal his sentence, Zuberi has claimed that he was a longtime source for US intelligence and that, for two decades, he did favors for the CIA and other American national security outfits. In a memo arguing for leniency, his lawyers call his record the “most remarkable list of assistance to the country encountered by experienced counsel and the court.” And in a sealed filing reported on by the Wall Street Journal and other outlets, Zuberi’s lawyers maintain he assisted CIA efforts to spy on China and other countries.

Zuberi cultivated relationships with prominent US and foreign officials, among them Olson and Allen. At the time of their 2017 trip to Qatar, Olson was an adviser to Zuberi’s company, Avenue Ventures, a person familiar with the matter said. (Olson was copied on email correspondence related to the Doha trip at an Avenue Ventures email address.) It is not clear how much Olson was paid or what services he performed for Avenue Ventures. 

According to people with knowledge of Zuberi’s appeal, Zuberi has claimed in his sealed filing that in June 2017 he was seeking a contract to help Qatar modernize its military. Despite a lack of personal experience in that area, Zuberi hoped to recruit former senior US military officials, including Allen, as consultants for the project. He met with Allen for that purpose days before the trip to Doha, according to people familiar with the meeting. Zuberi did not hire Allen, who was then a fellow at Brookings. Allen became the organization’s president in November 2017.

In emails to Zuberi, Allen praised the businessman. “Thank you for facilitating what I think were very important talks with the Qataris,” he wrote to Zuberi on June 12, 2017. “They couldn’t have taken place without your leadership.” Allen apologized for Zuberi’s exclusion from a meeting with the Emir, and he signed off: “With great respect for what you’re doing for our great country every day!”

Before and after the weekend trip to Doha, Allen kept McMaster apprised of his efforts there. In a June 9 email, he praised Trump’s response to the crisis as “masterful,” despite Trump’s initial public support for Saudi Arabia and UAE against Qatar. Allen also touted his own long-standing relationship with Qatari leaders, noting: “I have their trust at several levels.” In multiple emails, he passed on Qatari perspectives on the Gulf crisis and transmitted their requests for meetings with senior US officials. He did not mention Zuberi.

Video Shows a Chicago 13-Year-Old Had His Hands Up. An Officer Shot and Killed Him.

Chicago police on Thursday released body-cam video from the police officer who fatally shot 13-year-old Adam Toledo late last month. The video contains a crucial detail that was lacking in the Chicago Police Department’s initial statement: The boy appeared to have both hands raised the moment he was shot.

“Watching the body cam footage, which shows young Adam after he was shot, is extremely difficult,” Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot said during a press conference Thursday before warning parents that children should not watch the video.

Police shot Toledo on March 29 after responding to a report of shots fired. In a court hearing for the 21-year-old man who was with Toledo on the night of his death, a prosecutor claimed that Toledo had a gun in his right hand the moment he was shot. The state’s attorney’s office later said that the prosecutor “failed to fully inform himself” of the details of the case. An attorney for the boy’s family said that he was not holding a weapon at the time he was shot—a conclusion the body cam video seems to uphold.

As my colleague Sam Michaels reported earlier this month, the Chicago Police have until now intentionally kept the details of the case murky. Especially after the release of the new video, the police’s actions following the boy’s death look increasingly like a cover-up:

In a carefully constructed statement issued hours after the shooting, the police department only revealed that officers had seen “two males in a nearby alley,” and that one of them was armed and began to flee. (The other person in the alley was a 21-year-old man.) A “foot pursuit…resulted in a confrontation,” and an officer “fired his weapon, striking the offender in the chest.” Along with these bare details, the police department tweeted a photo of a gun they said was recovered at the scene.

On Thursday, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown clarified that the so-called male “offender” who was shot by police was a juvenile. But even then, according to Carlos Ballesteros, a reporter at Chicago-based Injustice Watch, he did not yet specify the boy was just 13 years old; it took reporters digging through an autopsy ledger to break the news about his age that day, according to Lakeidra Chavis, a Chicago-based reporter at the Trace, which covers gun violence. “Someone knew early on the person shot was actually a young teenager. That information was omitted while crafting a self-defense narrative,” she tweeted.

The release of the video is likely to spark further protests against police violence, especially following the high-profile killing of Daunte Wright and ongoing trial of Derek Chauvin, who is accused murder in the death of George Floyd. The video, which is graphic, has been released on the Civilian Office of Police Accountability website.

This is far from the first scandal for the Chicago police department. According to a database that maps police violence, Chicago police have killed 12 children since 2013, more than any other police department in the US.

Chicago police department has killed more people under the age of 18 than any other local law enforcement agency in America.

— Samuel Sinyangwe (@samswey) April 15, 2021

Chauvin’s Lawyer Uses the “Everything but the Knee” Defense

On Wednesday, in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the white Minneapolis police officer accused of murder, a defense witness introduced a brand new theory of what killed George Floyd last May. After dozens of witnesses testified that Floyd died because Chauvin kneeled on his neck for approximately nine minutes, Dr. David Fowler, who has been involved in other high-profile police cases as Maryland’s former chief medical examiner, countered that a slew of contributing factors likely led to Floyd’s death—including the carbon monoxide from a police car’s exhaust pipe. This new assertion only served one purpose: To muddy the waters for the jury that will decide Chauvin’s fate.

Bystander video of Chauvin pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck as he struggled to breathe went viral and sparked nationwide protests, but throughout the trial the defense was intent on creating reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury. Not only could Floyd have suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning, but what about his heart condition? And didn’t he really suffer from a drug overdose? In other words, everything but Derek Chauvin’s knee killed George Floyd.

The Hennepin County medical examiner ruled that the cause of death was homicide, and several of the state’s witnesses testified that Floyd died because he couldn’t breathe due to the police restraint. Dr. Fowler, however, said that Floyd’s death was more consistent with sudden cardiac arrest. He told the court that he couldn’t be certain of the victim’s cause of death due to the multiple factors that likely contributed to it. “I would fall back to undetermined in this particular case,” he said.

“I would fall back to undetermined in this particular case.”

We’ve heard about heart conditions and drugs before, but Dr. Fowler’s theory of poisoning by carbon monoxide from a police car’s exhaust when Floyd was handcuffed and laying on the ground brought a new level of creativity to the trial. Not that Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s lawyer, and Dr. Fowler were suggesting that the main cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning, but rather that it could have been a contributing factor. “Now, again, you’re not suggesting to the jury that Mr. Floyd died of carbon monoxide poisoning?” Nelson asked the doctor. “No, not exclusively,” he answered.

But here’s where something interesting happened: Dr. Fowler mentioned carbon monoxide so frequently that when he was being cross-examined by the prosecution, Jerry Blackwell, the state’s lawyer grilled Fowler about it. “Do you agree with me that there was no finding of carbon monoxide poisoning from Dr. Baker’s autopsy review?” Blackwell asked. Dr. Fowler agreed. Still, the whole idea of carbon monoxide as a remote and unlikely factor nonetheless somehow became normalized. Then, on Thursday morning, the state sought to include new evidence showing Floyd’s body had a normal range of carbon monoxide in it, but Judge Peter Cahill wouldn’t allow it. 

Dr. Fowler’s testimony serves the purpose of confusing the jurors, who will be sequestered in order to deliberate after closing arguments that begin on Monday. He essentially offered the proposition that despite all the other testimony, despite the video evidence to the contrary, no one can definitely know what killed Floyd last May. And if the jury can’t definitively say that it was Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck until he could no longer breathe, as several witnesses testified, then they can’t issue a guilty verdict. By arguing that it was a drug overdose, a cardiac event, and maybe even car exhaust fumes, the defense renders Chauvin in his capacity as a law enforcement officer, if not powerless, then limited in his capacity to inflict deadly harm. It wasn’t a white police officer that killed Floyd. It was Floyd’s own body, and by extension, his own fault.

The First ChessKid USA Girls and Women’s Championship Is 2 Days Away

There are many reasons to mark the moment in chess, especially if you study the game and the history of human rights movements that run through it. The expansion of educational opportunities is a growing feature, in focus this weekend during ChessKid’s inaugural online tournament for girls and women in the United States.

One of the awards is the opportunity for the top 10 kids in each section to join a camp instructed by every US champion of this century, including Jennifer Shahade, Irina Krush, Anna Zatonskih, Jennifer Yu, Rusa Goletiani, Sabina Foiser, and others. Shahade is an acclaimed broadcaster and educator, and Krush is phenomenal at every aspect of competition. (Krush beat me handily when we were both kids in a team matchup with world champion Anatoly Karpov, the greatest evisceration in my early memory.) Family plaques await the top three mother-daughter pairs in K through 3rd grade, 4th through 5th grades, 6th through 8th grades, and 9th through 12th grades, with individual and team prizes.

If you’re new to the strategies and tactics, consider: There are more possible games in chess than the number of atoms in the known universe: 10^120 games, 10^81 atoms. Read up on the inaugural event, and share Recharge tips at

No Hoax: New Report Says Trump’s 2016 Campaign Shared Info With Russian Intelligence

Imagine this news flash: the campaign manager of Joe Biden’s presidential bid throughout the 2020 race was in continuous and covert contact with a Chinese intelligence officer whom had once been her business associate. During these clandestine communications—which included secret meetings—she passed internal Biden campaign polling data to the Chinese operative, and the operative encouraged her to help advance a Chinese proposal that would allow Beijing to succeed in its territorial disputes in the South China Sea and further extend its influence there. And throughout this all, China was running an undercover operation to help Biden win.

Ka-boom! There would be headlines galore. The right-wing media would go bananas. Fox News would explode. Sean Hannity might lose the power of speech. And congressional Republicans would demand investigation upon investigation. There would be talk of impeachment. 

Well, this did happen. Just not with Biden and China, but with Donald Trump and Russia during the 2016 election. Yet this key piece of the Trump-Russia story never became a major scandal for the former president, who has not stopped claiming (falsely) that all talk about Vladimir Putin’s attack on the 2016 election and the ties between his campaign and Russia is a “hoax.” Nevertheless, on Thursday, another critical and eye-popping element of this part of the Trump-Russia scandal was revealed by the US Treasury Department. 

The Treasury announced it was slapping sanctions on “16 entities and 16 individuals who attempted to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election at the direction of the leadership of the Russian Government.” One of the targets on this list was Konstantin Kilimnik, who it identified as a “Russian and Ukrainian political consultant and known Russian Intelligence Services agent implementing influence operations on their behalf.” The announcement stated that during the 2016 election, Kilimnik provided Russian intelligence with “sensitive information on polling and campaign strategy.” It also declared that Kilimnik “sought to promote the narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” The Treasury Department pointed out that in 2018 Kilimnik was indicted on obstruction of justice charges regarding his unregistered lobbying work related to Ukraine and that he has been assisting Viktor Yanukovych, the ousted corrupt president of Ukraine, who is now hiding in exile in Russia. Kilimnik, according to the department, has been conniving to return Yanukovych to power in Ukraine. 

The Treasury announcement explained that Kilimnik was being sanctioned for “having engaged in foreign interference in the U.S. 2020 presidential election” and for “acting for or on behalf” of Yanukovych. It noted that the FBI has offered a reward of up to $250,000 for information leading to his arrest. What precisely Kilimnik did to try to influence the 2020 race was not detailed. In March, the Office of Director of National Intelligence released an unclassified report that concluded that Putin in 2020 launched a covert assault on American democracy to help Trump retain the White House, and the Treasury statement refers to that document.

What Treasury also did not spell out was that Kilimnik had been in league with Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign chairman for part of 2016. Kilimnik was a former business associate of Manafort; the pair had worked together in Ukraine, when Manafort was making millions of dollars as a consultant for the Putin-friendly Yanukovych. During the 2016 campaign, Manafort secretly interacted with Kilimnik and handed him internal polling information from the Trump campaign, according to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s final report and the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the Trump-Russia scandal, which was released last year (and was endorsed by the Republicans on the committee).

The Senate report included damning revelations about the Manafort-Kilimnik relationship. While Mueller characterized Kilimnik as an “associate” of Russian intelligence, this report called Kilimnik a “Russian intelligence officer.” It noted that it had “obtained some information suggesting Kilimnik may have been connected to the [Russian military intelligence] hack and leak operation targeting the 2016 U.S. election” to aid Trump. The intelligence committee pointed out that Manafort had repeatedly shared “internal Campaign information with Kilimnik,” but that its investigators were “unable to reliably determine why Manafort shared sensitive internal polling data or Campaign strategy with Kilimnik or with whom Kilimnik further shared that information.”

The Treasury Department announcement provided a partial answer to the mystery of what Kilimnik did with the information Manafort slipped him, noting he transferred it to Russian intelligence.

So here’s the bottom-line: Manafort passed inside info from the Trump campaign to Kilimnik, and Kilimnik gave it to Russian intelligence, which at the time was mounting a covert attack on the 2016 election to thwart Hillary Clinton and boost Trump. No collusion? Manafort was scheming with a Russian operative, as the Kremlin was trying to sabotage American politics to assist Trump. 

The Senate report noted that this was not just a one-way street. During the 2016 campaign and even after, Manafort discussed with Kilimnik a proposal for resolving the conflict in Eastern Ukraine—which Russia had invaded—that benefited Moscow. Kilimnik was trying to use Manafort, and through him Trump, to advance Putin’s interests related to Ukraine. After Trump won in 2016, Kilimnik said in an email to Manafort that the Ukraine plan only needed a “wink” from Trump to succeed. The Senate report also stated, “Manafort worked with Kilimnik starting in 2016 on narratives that sought to undermine evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S.” Trump’s top campaign man was part of an effort to cover up—or distract from—the Kremlin’s attack on the United States.

The committee stated it wasn’t certain it had fully uncovered all that was going on between Manafort and Kilimnik because the pair used encrypted communications. But the GOP-led panel did present a shocking conclusion: Manafort was a “grave counterintelligence threat.”

The top adviser to a successful presidential candidate “a grave intelligence threat.” How is that not a big deal? It deserved to be a scandal of its own, apart from the other portions of the Trump-Russia mess. Manafort was indeed prosecuted, convicted, and sent to prison for various corruptions related to his consulting work for Yanukovych. But in the end, Trump pardoned him. The president of the United States set free a “grave intelligence threat.” That, too, was a scandal that barely registered.

The news out of Treasury about the sanctions on Kilimnik is a sharp reminder that the Trump campaign did hobnob with Russia as it assaulted an American election—and that Trump, Manafort, and others essentially got away with it.

Jim Jordan Started Ranting About “Lost Liberty” in the Pandemic. Dr. Fauci Wasn’t Having It.

At a House coronavirus hearing on Thursday, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) began berating Dr. Anthony Fauci about the liberties he believes have been restricted thanks to mask mandates and social distancing guidelines during the pandemic. Fauci was not amused.

“Dr. Fauci, over the last year, Americans’ First Amendment rights have been completely attacked,” Jordan said, his mask slipping under his nose. “Your right to go to church, your right to assemble, your right to petition your government, freedom of the press, freedom of speech have all been assaulted.”

Dr. Fauci was not having Jim Jordan's performative denseness

— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) April 15, 2021

As an example of a limit on freedom of assembly, Jordan referenced a curfew in Ohio meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus—but he didn’t mention the curfews enacted in many cities last spring in response to protests against police violence. To Jordan, limiting the capacities of places of worship and restricting constituents’ access to their state houses constitute egregious violations of the rights to worship and to petition the government.

“I don’t look at this as a liberty thing, Congressman Jordan,” Fauci said. “I look at this as a public health thing.”

“You’re making this a personal thing, and it isn’t … my recommendations are not a personal recommendation. It is based on the CDC guidance … we’re not talking about liberties. We’re talking about a pandemic that has killed 560,000 Americans” — Fauci to Jim Jordan

— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) April 15, 2021

Not Even Ivanka Can Save the Nearly Half of Republicans Refusing to Get Vaccinated

Resistance to a coronavirus vaccine remains high on the political right, with yet another poll showing that nearly half of Republicans say they don’t plan to get a jab. And not even the return of one of MAGA-world’s most beloved bit players can convince them otherwise. 

On Wednesday, after months of self-imposed silence, former first daughter Ivanka Trump emerged on Twitter to post a photo of herself receiving the vaccine and encourage others to follow suit. The tweet comes amid Ivanka’s long record of questioning the science of lockdown measures and ignoring federal guidelines to avoid nonessential out-of-state travel. But of course, that’s not what the right took issue with.

“So so disappointed in you!” one Twitter user responded, adding sad emoji faces. “How could you.” It was part of a flood of tweets expressing apparent betrayal. Others poured in with conspiracy theories questioning both the photo’s timing and its authenticity. “Does anyone really believe that she JUST got the shot? #OldPhoto,” read one tweet

“Bill Gates is tracking you now,” another, falsely, claimed.

Today, I got the shot!!! I hope that you do too!
Thank you Nurse Torres!!!

— Ivanka Trump (@IvankaTrump) April 14, 2021

Let’s see how many people in Ivanka Trump’s IG mentions are happy she posted a vaccine selfie, shall we

— Tina Nguyen (@tina_nguyen) April 15, 2021

The angry responses laid bare the acute threat that vaccine resistance poses to achieving herd immunity, particularly as the country races to get as many people vaccinated as possible against the spread of various coronavirus strains. Perhaps dad’s years of support for the anti-vaccination movement, in addition to his mismanagement of the science around this whole pandemic thing, have some consequences. 

Indigenous and Environmental Groups Warn Biden Not to Trust Bolsonaro

In a campaign video released on Monday, the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) urged President Joe Biden not to trust the far-right Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro. “We know the White House is making a secret climate deal with Bolsonaro,” the message says. “Do not let this man negotiate the future of the Amazon.” The video, which is going viral and has been shared by celebrities like actor Mark Ruffalo and Brazilian singer Anitta, goes on to say Brazil’s president has declared war on Indigenous people and on democracy, is spreading “COVID, lies, and hate,” and has called into question the results of the United States’ presidential elections that culminated in his friend and ally Donald Trump’s defeat. “Here’s the deal, Mr. President: It’s either the Amazon or Bolsonaro. You can’t have both. Which side are you on?”

Mr. @JoeBiden , the indigenous peoples from Brazil know you are making a secret climate deal with Bolsonaro. We must warn you. DO NOT TRUST HIM.
If you want to help the Amazon, talk to the people that live and keep the forest alive. #AmazonOrBolsonaro #WhichSideAreYouOn

— Apib Oficial (@ApibOficial) April 12, 2021

Bolsonaro is among the 40 world leaders Biden invited to attend a virtual climate summit next week on Earth Day “to galvanize efforts by the major economies to tackle the climate crisis.” The US and Brazilian governments have reportedly been negotiating a billion-dollar agreement to fight deforestation and climate change. According to the Brazilian government, Brazil’s minister of the environment, Ricardo Salles, and other Cabinet members, as well as representatives of the Foreign Affairs ministry, have met with former Secretary of State John Kerry, who Biden appointed as the US special presidential envoy for climate, as part of a series of online bilateral meetings.

Last month, Salles said in an interview that Brazil would commit to reducing the deforestation of the Amazon by 40 percent in exchange for $1 billion in funds over one year from the US government. One-third of those funds would go toward financing direct initiatives to curb deforestation, and two-thirds to foster economic development in the region. According to Brazil’s most prominent newspaper, the Folha de S. Paulo, Salles showed Kerry’s team a PowerPoint presentation with the illustration of a stray dog wagging its tail and drooling over a case of rotisserie-style chickens—the kind you can find in any bakery in Brazil.

In a rare outburst of sincerity, minister Ricardo Salles showed to @ClimateEnvoy @JohnKerry's team that Bolsonaro's administration is like a stray dog just waiting for a waver of the owner (@POTUS @JoeBiden) of the chicken (US$ billions) to bite and run. #AmazonOrBolsonaro

— Carlos Rittl (@carlosrittl) April 14, 2021

The image, which Folha de S. Paulo reported was not immediately understood by the US officials, apparently carried the message that the Brazilian government is eagerly anticipating a reward for any collaboration on climate, but is likely “to bite and run.”

Last week, almost 200 Brazilian civil society organizations and collectives published the open letter, which they sent to the offices of Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Kerry, and Democratic lawmakers. They warned that giving “resources and political prestige to Bolsonaro” and entering any deals without the Brazilian government showing a good-faith effort to reverse its anti-environmental agenda would amount to an endorsement of the “humanitarian tragedy” and destructive policies underway in the country. “It is not reasonable to expect the solutions for the Amazon and its people will come from negotiations made behind closed doors with your worst enemy,” the letter reads. For Greenpeace Brazil, giving Bolsonaro “a blank check” comes with no guarantee that the money would be used to protect the rainforest. In fact, it could risk making Biden complicit in its ongoing environmental destruction. 

“It is not reasonable to expect the solutions for the Amazon and its people will come from negotiations made behind closed doors with your worst enemy.”

The prospect of a deal between the two countries on the environment marks a shift from the more adversarial stances both leaders took before the US election. At a presidential debate in September, Biden suggested that Brazil might suffer “economic consequences” if it didn’t “stop tearing down” the Amazon and called for the international community to offer $20 billion to end illegal deforestation. In response, Bolsonaro characterized Biden’s remarks as “coward threats” and an attack on Brazil’s sovereignty. Since his election, the US president has sent his Brazilian counterpart a letter outlining opportunities for bilateral collaboration on the pandemic and climate.

Behind the scenes, however, the Biden administration has strongly signaled that Brazil’s approach to climate will set the tone for the relations between the two countries moving forward. A State Department spokesperson recently told CNN that the US expects “a very clear commitment” from the Brazilian government to fight deforestation in the Amazon, and Todd Chapman, the US ambassador to Brazil, reportedly gave Bolsonaro an ultimatum to set environmental goals at the April summit. 

!!! @POTUS is about to make a secret climate deal with Bolsonaro. The indigenous peoples from Brazil are warning: Do not trust Bolsonaro. Don't let him negotiate the future of the Amazon.
@leodicaprio #WhichSideAreYouOn #AmazonOrBolsonaro

— Anitta (@Anitta) April 12, 2021

“Bolsonaro is the problem, not a solution,” Marcio Astrini, the executive secretary of the Brazilian Climate Observatory network of organizations, wrote on Twitter. Indeed, the Brazilian president’s record on the environment is nothing short of disastrous. During his administration, deforestation rates in the Amazon—driven by land-grabbing and illegal logging and mining—reached a 12-year high. This March a loss of 367,61 km² (or about 90,838 acres) was recorded, threatening an increased risk of wildfires. Bolsonaro has consistently dismantled environmental policies, loosened regulations, and drained enforcement agencies of resources, while staffing them with military appointees. Just last week, Salles fired four officials in leadership positions at the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), which handed out 42 percent fewer fines for violations against the Amazon in 2020 when compared to the previous year. 

All this has taken place amid one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks, largely as a result of Bolsonaro’s refusal to follow and implement public health recommendations, for which he’s currently facing a congressional investigation. Bolsonaro has also proposed a bill to allow mining on protected land. It’s just one example of how he’s taken advantage of the national focus on the pandemic to weaken environmental protections, while invasions of Indigenous territories by miners, ranchers, and land grabbers and attacks on environmentalists have spiked. The administration’s strategy of deploying military troops to fight deforestation has failed. About $500 million in donations from developed countries to the Amazon Fund, which is managed by the Brazilian Development Bank, have remained untouched, raising questions about how serious the government has been in its request for additional foreign aid, now from the US. Meanwhile, the minister of the environment is pushing to pass so-called “land-grabber bills” that would lead to even more occupation and exploitation of public lands. 

Earlier this year, Indigenous leaders asked the International Criminal Court to investigate Bolsonaro for crimes against humanity for the persecution of Indigenous people and environmental damage. Environmentalists say his actions rise to the level of “ecocide,” which has yet to be recognized under international criminal law. Indigenous communities have also been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, with more than 52,000 confirmed cases among 163 different populations. In the face of existential threats to their lives and livelihoods, they are demanding a seat at the table in any negotiation with the United States about the Amazon. “Biden’s election has enshrined the will of Americans to be in the right side of history,” the letter signed by APIB and other Indigenous and environmental groups says. “Doing it right for Brazilians would be a powerful show of that will.” 

A Very Handy Breakdown of the Most Common Vaccine Side Effects By Age

How many times have you heard this conversation? A friend, relative, or colleague declares, “I got the vaccine!” Then, typically, two questions immediately follow: “Which one?!” and “How’d you feel afterward?!” If you’re one of the lucky 124 million who have been vaccinated, there’s a good chance you experienced at least one side effect. For many, the vaccine hits with more oomph than, say, the typical flu shot. (Experts say the experience can be similar to what follows a shingles vaccine.) 

“With the first dose, you’re trying to bring the troops, they’re finding out, who’s that foreign enemy that we’re trying to target?”

As people ages 16 and up become eligible for the vaccine by April 19, and more and more people start to feel these common side effects (or don’t!), I wanted to understand what is actually going on in the body after the jab. Why do young people, in general, seem to report harsher side effects than older people? Why do COVID survivors seem to have a harder time with the first dose of the vaccine than those who never got the virus? Why, in many cases, is the second dose of the vaccine worse? Are any of the individual anecdotes I’ve heard supported by science? (To be clear: Mild side effects are expected. In rare cases, some people have reported allergic reactions to the vaccine, and the CDC and FDA are currently investigating six reports of blood clots following the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. You can find more information on that here.)

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To answer some of these pressing questions, I recently chatted with Dr. Phyllis Tien, a professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of California, San Francisco, who led a segment of the Phase 3 Johnson & Johnson clinical trial in San Francisco. (Overall, the trial enrolled nearly 45,000 participants from South Africa, Latin America, and the United States.) The bottom line: No experience is universal. She also took care to emphasize that no matter the side effects, the vaccines are life-saving—and each of the vaccines we have is highly effective for people in every age group.

Here are some of the other key takeaways from our conversation:

Side effects are normal. They can indicate your body is working to protect you. “For people who may have had COVID in the past, their body now has recognized that foreign enemy.”

When you get a COVID vaccine, it instructs your body how to produce what’s called an antigen, in this case, “a foreign protein from a virus,” Tien explains. Any fever or fatigue you might feel shortly after getting vaxxed is a side effect of your immune system revving up to fight the foreign antigen. Then, over the course of a week or two, your body will produce immune cells that “remember” the foreign protein and will protect you if you were to ever see that protein again—for instance, with the real deal, SARS-CoV-2. 

“Your immune system is kind of like an army,” Tien says. “With the first dose, you’re trying to bring the troops, they’re finding out, who’s that foreign enemy that we’re trying to target? And now with the second one, everyone’s ready to go.”

That’s why, for many people, the second dose brings on worse side effects. The second round of immune cells “are just coming into play,” Tien says. She also notes that some people may not experience side effects with the second dose, and that is perfectly normal, too. (Case in point: After getting the second Moderna shot, Tien says that she herself didn’t really have “any symptoms at all.”)

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Some COVID survivors have reported harsher vaccine side effects with the first dose. 

In a small study from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, published in the New England Journal of Medicine last week, researchers analyzed data from 230 people surveyed after they received the first shot of either the Moderna or Pfizer COVID vaccine. People who’d had a coronavirus infection prior to the shot were more likely to report side effects like fatigue, headache, chills, fever, muscle pain, and joint pain after receiving one dose.

The reason, explains Tien, is pretty similar to the reason why reactions to the second vaccine dose are often stronger: “For people who may have had COVID in the past, their body now has recognized that foreign enemy,” and is ready to fight it off, she says. “It’s the same concept, your body—your troops—are ready to go.”

“As you age, your immune system is waning. So it’s like those immune cells as troops are getting old and tired.”

But! If you’ve had COVID, don’t let the possibility of harsher side effects stop you from getting vaccinated. “At this point, people believe that the vaccine actually generates a stronger immune response than having natural infection,” Tien notes, “which is why we still recommend the vaccine in people that we know have had a COVID infection.”

In general, young people are reporting more side effects than older folks. They can thank their strong immune systems. 

While Tien says she’s seen a wide variety of mild responses to the vaccine, across all ages, data from Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and Janssen/Johnson & Johnson broadly show that young people are more likely to experience side effects than people in older age groups. In Johnson & Johnson’s trial, for instance, about 45 percent of people 60 and up reported any “systemic” reaction to the vaccine—system-wide side effects like fatigue, headache, or fever—while about 62 percent of people in the younger age group reported any systemic reaction. The same trend was true of “local reactions,” like pain at the site of injection. Researchers saw similar results with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. (Each of the clinical trials analyzed their data a little bit differently. For instance, while Johnson & Johnson’s older age group includes people 60 and up, Pfizer’s is people 56 and up, and Moderna’s is 65 and up.)

It’s unclear why some people experience side effects while others don’t. But in general, Tien says, “as you age, your immune system is waning, so it’s not as strong. So it’s like those immune cells as troops are getting old and tired. But for young people, they have a very intact immune response.”

If you don’t experience side effects, that’s also normal! Not having side effects does not mean you are unprotected. “The enemy is never going to be able to cross the line and cause an actual infection.”

Let’s say the vaccine doesn’t kick your ass—are you still protected? Most likely, yes. While mild side effects can indicate your body is working to protect you, they are not a requirement for immunity.

For one thing, consider the clinical trials: Of the tens of thousands of participants who participated, many did not experience any systemic side effects, especially those in the older age groups. Yet, each of the three vaccines protected the majority of participants, in every age group, from hospitalization and death. 

If you don’t feel terrible, “don’t worry” Tien says. “Your immune response, most likely, is working.” 

Even with possible side effects, the COVID vaccine is way, WAY better—and way different—than getting a severe COVID infection.

If you take one thing away from this article, know that when you get your vaccine, you are not experiencing a COVID infection, even if a few of the symptoms may be similar. “The vaccine is not a live virus,” Tien says, “so it is only helping your body’s immune response to a foreign enemy. But the enemy is never going to be able to cross the line and cause an actual infection.”

For young people who aren’t sure the side effects are worth the trouble, Tien offers two reasons why getting vaccinated is crucial: First, on an individual level, “COVID is definitely not benign” in young people. “There are young people and children who have gone on to develop very bad disease,” she says. “And now, we’re very worried about the long-term clinical effects of COVID.” Adverse COVID symptoms “may be lower in young people or children,” she adds, “but it’s not zero.” And second, on a public health level, “the more all of us can get vaccinated, the more we can, hopefully, get back to the life we once knew.” 

Far-Right Extremism Has Become One of the Intelligence Community’s Rising Threats

When the US intelligence community last released its public assessment of global threats at the beginning of 2019, white supremacism was barely mentioned. The 42-page report devoted one note about “ethno-supremacist” violence in the context of its threat in Europe, not the United States.

This year’s global threat assessment, which Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines released ahead of a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee Wednesday morning, was a much different story. In addition to its typical focus on Russia, China, and Iran, the report identified violent extremists, who were described as having “an often overlapping mix of white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and exclusionary cultural-nationalist beliefs,” as posing “an elevated threat to the United States.”

Look at the differences between ODNI’s last report under former President Donald Trump and this year’s edition. Here’s the 2019 version:

Compare it with the one put out by President Joe Biden’s administration:

The ODNI report says the threat from violent extremism “has increased since 2015,” a finding that aligns with what nongovernmental organizations and journalists have seen. The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington identified “267 plots or attacks and 91 fatalities” involving right-wing extremists since 2015, more than four times the number of incidents linked to left-wing extremists, according to a Washington Post analysis of the data.

The most recent glaring example of this alarming trend was the January 6 insurrection, where pro-Trump protesters stormed the US Capitol, leading to the death of several protesters and one Capitol Police officer. A who’s-who of well-known extremist groups, including the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, have had members charged in connection with the insurrection.

FBI Director Christopher Wray, who testified on Wednesday about the intelligence community’s annual threat assessment, had previously told Congress that the insurrection was just one piece of rising extremism nationally. “Unfortunately, January 6 was not an isolated event,” Wray said last month. “The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a long time now, and it’s not going away anytime soon.”

How Do You Laugh With a Saxophone? Look to Red Holloway.

Little, if anything, is laugh-worthy in the news right now, but the catharsis, joy, and recharge of laughter are available if you do some digging.

The year is 1964. The setting: a festival in Antibes, France. The band is 21-year-old George Benson on guitar, Brother Jack McDuff on organ, Red Holloway on saxophone, and Joe Dukes on drums. The music is scorching. The laugh isn’t yours—it’s Holloway’s.

Minutes in, he replicates a bursting laugh through his horn, a familiar technique in improvisational swing of the era but rarely accomplished with such expressive vitality on video. The laugh is teed up here, and Benson gets in on it, circling his arm behind Holloway during the laugh, and fashioning another sound on guitar that you’re bound to recognize. You can see, hear, feel, or imagine how much tension and release are coded in these moments, designed for a crowd but deployed for themselves.

Here is Benson’s recognizable riff, right after McDuff’s organ. And here’s Holloway’s laugh. Are they playing the licks for the crowd or themselves? Yes.

The Cop Who Shot Daunte Wright Will Be Charged With Manslaughter

Kim Potter, the former police officer who fatally shot 20-year-old Daunte Wright this weekend, will be charged with second-degree manslaughter, a Minnesota prosecutor announced Wednesday.

The announcement of charges against Potter comes after days of clashes between protesters and police in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, the Minneapolis suburb where Potter killed Wright with a single bullet after repeatedly shouting, “Taser!” Potter, a 26-year veteran of the police force, resigned on Tuesday. If convicted, she could face up to 10 years in prison, although the state recommends lower sentences for people with no prior criminal records.

Meanwhile, the murder trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd continues in a Minneapolis courtroom not far from the site of Wright’s death.

Why Puerto Rico Statehood Is So Much More Complicated Than It Is for DC

As the partisan bias of the Senate, which favors sparsely populated states with overwhelmingly white populations, has been more broadly recognized, statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico has become a rallying cry for Democratic activists. The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives has already approved DC’s effort, voting in favor of the proposal last summer.

On Wednesday, the House Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on two major bills that could advance statehood for Puerto Rico. While there are similarities between the two entities’ situations—namely that it is fundamentally wrong to deny people a voice in their government by virtue of where they live, and that racism is an undergirding reason the disenfranchisement persists—the hearings are likely to expose important differences obscured by the United States’ partisan political lens.

Critics of statehood say US colonial injustices “have alienated so many Puerto Ricans from the idea.”

While you’d be hard pressed to find lots of DC residents who don’t want statehood, that isn’t true on either the island or in Puerto Rico’s diaspora. Building a similar consensus would be necessary for any successful push in Congress, says Julio Ricardo Varela, the editorial director of Futuro Media and the founder of Latino Rebels. Instead, he warns that the dueling Congressional bills seem destined to derail each other.

One proposal would offer a binding up or down vote on statehood that, if approved, would force the federal government to make Puerto Rico a state. That bill, introduced by Democrat Rep. Darren Soto (the first Puerto Rican elected to Congress from Florida) is also supported by Jenniffer González, the island’s non-voting representative to Congress and a staunch supporter of former President Donald Trump (who once suggested “selling” Puerto Rico). The other proposal, pushed by New York Democratic Reps. Nydia Velazquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who share Puerto Rican heritage) has broader support in Congress. It would create a status convention where representatives elected by Puerto Ricans would study an array of options for the island—which, aside from statehood, include independence or some form of association that would leave Puerto Rico with more autonomy—and put vetted proposals to a binding vote. “The key is that this framework would be developed by Puerto Ricans and for Puerto Ricans, not dictated to them like so many previous policies,” the pair wrote in an op-ed last year.

Both bills would push the federal government to accept a Puerto Rican choice, something that’s never happened in 123 years of US colonial rule. Varela says the supporters of the Soto proposal and the Velazquez/Ocasio-Cortez plan should be working together rather than at cross purposes. In a Washington Post op-ed published just after the Soto bill was introduced, Varela called the plan “another recycled, empty attempt” because so-called institutional statehood supporters—people like Soto and González who seek statehood by working within the traditional US/Puerto Rico relationship—are not doing enough to “connect its struggle to the broader fight for racial and social justice.” 

Institutional statehood supporters insist that it is clear that statehood is what the majority of Puerto Rican people want, pointing to nonbinding results from the last three times the island’s voters were asked. But those elections’ mandates were complicated by the role they played as a football in the island’s own fractious domestic politics, and, in the case of the first two, widespread boycotting and ballot spoiling. Others note that the most recent one, in November 2020, had only half of registered voters turn out, with barely more than half favoring statehood; the same election saw the pro-statehood governor retained with less than a third of voter support.

The island’s most prominent statehood supporters have many critics, and not just those who favor independence or other status options, but also among the group of statehood supporters who see the Soto plan as too willing to ignore more than 100 years of history that “have alienated so many Puerto Ricans from the idea of statehood,” as Varela has put it. He argues that statehood must be attached to formal recognition and reparations for past atrocities and injustices perpetrated on the island under United States control, which include deadly attacks on labor and pro-independence uprisings; FBI surveillance, longterm imprisonment and torture of independence leaders; and forced sterilization programs.

Decades of repression and violence targeting pro-independence activists, who were largely rooted on the left, created a stigma that lasts to this day. “[Political opponents] have done a really good job delegitimizing independence sympathizers, politically,” Varela says. “It’s not the violent repression of the past, but it’s really easy to scream ‘Venezuela’ and ‘Cuba’ in Puerto Rico and scare people.”

The current status—in place since 1952—gives Puerto Rico only limited local control while leaving final authority with the US Congress. Puerto Ricans are US citizens, but if they live on the island they can’t vote in presidential elections and have no representation in Congress beyond the non-voting delegate position held by González. (If Puerto Rico were to become a state, aside from two senators, its population would likely garner five members of Congress.) Supreme Court rulings from the early 20th century known as the Insular Cases, which posited that the peoples of Puerto Rico and other territories were “alien races” unable to govern themselves, still shape US relations with Puerto Rico—including the 2016 decision by the Obama administration, in conjunction with Congress, creating an unelected fiscal oversight board to control the island’s finances.

González’s own Republican inclinations strongly suggest that Puerto Rican Senators would not necessarily be Democrats. But Democrats, who emerged from the Trump era more focused on issues of racism and voting rights, have nonetheless broadly come to believe that the island’s situation would be improved by statehood.

“It’s too easy when liberals say, ‘They’re Americans like us.’ That bristles a lot of people,” Varela explains. “I get the intention, but there’s plenty of Puerto Ricans who are like, ‘We’re not American like you.'”

One Trial Can’t Change American Policing

Just ten miles away from where the state of Minnesota is prosecuting former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, officer Kim Potter, who is white and a 26-year veteran of the Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, force, killed a 20-year-old Black man. Last weekend, Daunte Wright was pulled over for driving with expired plates, when police found a warrant for unpaid fines. When Wright tried to get back in the car, Potter fired one shot, killing him. She claimed she was reaching for her taser and pulled out her gun instead. The juxtaposition is jarring: While one police officer stood trial for the death of a Black man, another cop kills yet another Black man. 

The Chauvin trial has been making extraordinary headlines, with a law enforcement colleagues testifying that Chauvin’s actions were not justified when he kneeled on Floyd’s neck for approximately nine minutes until he died. A few headlines declared that these admittedly powerful testimonies represented a “crack in the blue wall,” a euphemism for the culture of secrecy surrounding policing, especially when it comes to violence. But after Wright was killed nearby, the police department flew a Thin Blue Line flag at their station to demonstrate not their service to the public but their solidarity with each other. There are no cracks in that blue wall, it’s firmly intact. Police officers rarely end up on trial for killing civilians. But if the jury finds Chauvin guilty and the judge doles out punishment, it won’t be because society has reckoned with the problematic and pervasive realities of policing. It’s time to stop framing the trial of Derek Chauvin as a precedent or a symbol of change; it’s merely an aberration.

The fact is that for every Black person whose life is cut short and hash-tagged, there are hundreds more, of every race whose deaths go unnoticed by anyone other than their loved ones. According to the Washington Post database, police shot and killed 1,021 people last year. So far in 2021, 213 people were fatally shot by police. (Floyd—and who knows how many others—was not included in that database, because Chauvin’s knee, and not a gun, was the weapon.) 

The state of Minnesota has insisted in court that police officers and their methods are not on trial, just the actions of one. Technically, they’re right—but their argument is missing the point. Police violence can’t be treated as a problem involving various individual officers. The issue isn’t just that Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck until he died, or that Potter shot Wright during a so-called routine traffic stop, but rather that since its inception, the system of policing in America was designed to enable this kind of violence.

A look back at the history of American policing shows how its purpose has always been to enforce the racial order. And that goes a long way to explaining why, even after every unfortunate video of police violence goes viral, police violence continues. The genesis of law enforcement as we know it today can be found in the system of slavery. In the 17th century, slave patrol units were created to police enslaved people, so if they were caught outside of their master’s plantations without a “pass” or permission from their owners, they were subject to beatings and torture. After the Civil War and the formal end of the formal system of slavery, white vigilantes like the Ku Klux Klan continued this reign of terror on freedmen. The Jim Crow era brought about Black Codes, which were racist and discriminatory laws enforced by police officers. After the civil unrest during the summer of 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson organized the Kerner Commission to study violence in Black neighborhoods. The 1968 report concluded that the problem was racial injustice, poverty, and police brutality. White America, however, was not sympathetic to the commission’s findings and a few months after its release, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, leading to more uprisings. The federal government responded by sending more heavily-armed police into Black neighborhoods to crack down on the unrest. Today, police are in our neighborhoods, our schools, and on our streets—with essentially the same purpose.

Contrary to popular belief and TV cop shows, police don’t spend that much time solving murders or other violent crimes. The New York Times found that in New Orleans, Louisiana, Sacramento, California, and Montgomery County, Maryland police officers only spend about 4 percent of their time responding to murders or assaults or other forms of serious crime. Mostly, cops are called to the scene of car accidents, mental health crises, and for routine traffic stops. Their codes of conduct are often written in a way that provides a lot of leeway in how they interact with the general public. Don’t shoot into a moving vehicle…unless you really have to. Don’t restrain a suspect…unless you feel your life is in danger. The presence of weapons and the emphasis on an individual officer’s personal experience are a recipe for police interactions often to turn deadly. Plus, for many people, the mere existence of Black bodies constitute a threat. So it becomes less surprising, though no less appalling, that George Floyd’s use of a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience story would turn deadly.  

A system such as this, that is so deeply embedded in society and extends back to one of its original sins, will not be undone by the trial of one violent man in uniform. This country has built an entire system dedicated to maintaining the racial hierarchy, often at the expense of marginalized people. Nor will this one trial be a referendum on policing. The parade of cops testifying that Chauvin was wrong in his actions is not a harbinger of a transformed approach to policing. It is merely law enforcement officials correctly wanting to distance themselves from the mockery Chauvin made of Floyd’s rights. It allows police, and society as a whole, to make Chauvin the problem, instead of traditions and deeply embedded practices of American policing. For every cop who told the court that Floyd’s death at the hands of police was unjust, many more will kill or inflict needless suffering on another Black man. And, as usual, there won’t be a trial, much less a reckoning. 

Elizabeth Warren Slams Student Loan Servicer as Democrats Call for Debt Cancellation

Senate Democrats made the case Tuesday for canceling some student debt, noting that debt forgiveness would stimulate the pandemic-battered economy, help close the racial wealth gap, and aid families who have put off homeownership, child-rearing, or retirement.

But Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the chair of the Senate subcommittee that held the hearing on student debt—Warren’s first as the panel’s head—focused her questioning less on cancellation and more on the corporations who process the loans she’d like to cancel.

Her main target was Navient, one of the nation’s largest servicers of both federal and private student loan debt, processing the loans of more than 12 million borrowers nationwide. The company’s CEO, John Remondi, was on a panel of nearly a dozen speakers, from members of Congress to academics, who gathered virtually to discuss a wide-ranging set of issues related to student debt, including the proposal championed by Warren for President Joe Biden to forgive up to $50,000 of student loan debt via executive action. 

Warren opened her questioning by highlighting the numerous state investigations and lawsuits directed at Navient, as well as the revelation that Navient overcharged the federal government for $22.3 million in student loan subsidies that the company has recently been directed to pay back.

“Mr. Remondi, if a person who worked at the Department of Education stole $22.3 million, they’d be fired,” she said. “Can you explain why your government contracts haven’t been canceled and why Navient has continued to reward you personally with nearly $40 million in compensation since 2014, even as these scandals pile up?” She called for the federal government to end its contracts with Navient—and said Navient should fire its CEO, while he listened. (Remondi said that some of the allegations raised by Warren aren’t true and repeated that his company’s goal is to help all borrowers.)

Later, Warren confronted James Steeley, the CEO of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA), one of the largest servicers for the federal government’s embattled public service loan forgiveness program. She cited several lawsuits and Education Department audits that have accused the company of undercounting borrowers’ payments in assessing their eligibility for public service loan forgiveness—resulting in 98 percent of applicants to the program being denied forgiveness. Steeley claimed that these findings were incorrect but did not elaborate on how. 

@SenWarren: Mr Steeley, has the @usedgov terminated your contract, or penalized your company in any way, for your errors of mismanagement preventing teachers & firefighters from getting the debt cancellation they’re owed?

— AFR (@RealBankReform) April 13, 2021

Both Navient and PHEAA have faced a number of lawsuits regarding their treatment of student borrowers. Warren noted that six states have filed suit against Navient, as has the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which alleges that Navient deceived borrowers, nudging them towards higher repayment amounts than they otherwise were eligible for. PHEAA recently settled a lawsuit filed by the attorney general of Massachusetts, agreeing to pay relief to borrowers in the state. 

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) also catalogued the lawsuits against Navient, asking Remondi how much he was paid across the three years in which the lawsuits were filed. Remondi’s total compensation during that time amounted to more than $20 million—a number that paled in comparison to the billions that Navient is accused of overcharging borrowers, according to Menendez.

“If I was one of your shareholders, I’d be concerned that you pocketed $20 million in salary and compensation but yet your company might be responsible for a couple of billion dollars to American families,” Menendez said. “If I was one of your customers, I’d be calling [Education] Secretary [Miguel] Cardona to cancel my student debt immediately.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) questioned PHEAA’s Steeley about the process that his company is using to review borrowers’ eligible payments for public service loan forgiveness. Steeley criticized the complexity of the requirements placed on the program by Congress. But Van Hollen responded that the 98 percent denial rate for forgiveness “is not due to complexity alone,” adding that borrowers haven’t gotten the guidance that they should have received from servicers like PHEAA who are administering the loans. PHEAA, he said, “has taken an admittedly complicated process and made it worse.”

America’s Wealth Gap Is Much More Obscene Than You Had Imagined

They have super-yachts, wine cellars, multiple homes, home movie theaters, private safe-rooms, and family office suites. The secluded world of the super-wealthy is one that most people only experience through compulsively watchable TV shows like Succession and Gossip Girl. But a new book from Mother Jones Senior Editor Michael Mechanic, Jackpot: How the Super-Rich Really Live–and How Their Wealth Harms Us All,  goes beyond mere voyeurism to ask important questions about the gargantuan and growing wealth gap in the United States.

In a conversation with Jamilah King on the Mother Jones Podcast, Mechanic discusses the tension between the promise of the American dream and the stark realities of the present-day wealth gap. He cites a 2011 study published by Michael Norton and Dan Ariely that found the majority of its 5,522 participants underestimated the size of the wealth gap in the United States. At the time, the poorest 40 percent of American’s owned a mere 0.3 percent of the nation’s wealth, while the top 84 percent owned 20 percent. In the ten years since that study, the wealth gap has only grown larger. “Which is immoral,” Mechanic says. “It’s horrible. 40 percent of Americans have no wealth at all.” 

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According to Mechanic, a major culprit for the stratification of American society has been the tax code. Income taxes in the United States may be progressive, but there are fewer mechanisms for taxing accumulated wealth. This is partly because the richest Americans, and their teams of accountants and lawyers, have figured out how to set up complicated tax-dodging mechanisms, like trusts, off-shore accounts, or expatriation. On March 1, 2021, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced the Ultra-Millionaire Tax to try to address this issue. “The very, very, very wealthiest people in America pay a lower tax rate than the people at the bottom, or the people in the middle,” Mechanic says. “Which is crazy, but they can do this because of the way the system is set up.”

“Higher wealth is associated with more entitlement and narcissism, less compassion.”

Studies have found that the accumulation of massive amounts of wealth has a profound psychological effect on those who have it. Mechanic investigated the ways that wealth can change a person’s behavior, perceptions, and values. “Higher wealth is associated with more entitlement and narcissism, less compassion,” explains Mechanic. “People who are wealthier tend to be less socially attuned to those around them; they’re more likely to engage in unethical behavior. It just goes on and on.”

It’s not that the super-wealthy don’t suffer. The process of getting rich comes with some unpleasant side-effects like fear, anxiety, and insecurity. Most people who amass wealth become afraid of losing it—something Mechanic describes as a “fear-based” mindset—which has created an entire market for luxe safe rooms where they can hunker down and survive not only the random intruder, but also climate catastrophes, mass shootings, and even a nuclear blast. Mechanic interviewed a former military contractor who started a company building safe rooms for rich people in their their wine cellars, walk-in closets, and home movie theaters.

But despite the psychological drive for people to hoard wealth once they have it, an overwhelming majority of Americans, rich and poor, Republican and Democrat, would not choose the extremely unequal society in which we find ourselves today. In the same 2011 Norton and Ariely study, they showed around 5000 people two pie charts: One showed wealth distribution in Sweden, and one showed wealth distribution in the United States. When asked which society they’d rather live in, without knowing what these pie charts represented, a whopping 90 percent of the study’s participants chose Sweden. It’s something Mechanic thinks is very telling: “When people visualize how bad the wealth gap is in America,” he notes, “they say, I don’t want to live there.”

Despite the inevitable allure of the cosseted lifestyle, writing a book about the super-wealthy did not leave Mechanic with a desire to join their ranks. “When you have ridiculous amounts of money, it sucks up all your time and energy,” says Mechanic. “It wouldn’t make me happy.”

“Dearest Beyonce”: Myanmar Activists Beg American Brands to Help Them End the Military Coup

One evening in March, Nann, a 20-year-old medical student in eastern Myanmar, sat in bed with her phone and composed a Twitter message to Beyoncé. “Dearest @Beyonce, #Myanmar people love you & your music” she wrote first. But this wasn’t your usual fan mail: Nann wanted the musician and global icon to know that Myanmar soldiers had seized control of the country in a coup and were now gunning down protesters in the streets. Victims included women who worked at garment factories like the one that supplies Adidas, which recently partnered with Beyoncé to sell a clothing and sneaker line. “Please #SpeakUpForMyanmar,” Nann wrote to the singer, who she hoped might have a soft spot for the country after visiting its Buddhist temples years ago. “I believe [the] queen can’t stand watching our kids and girls being brutally murdered by a group of terrorists.” 

Nann, who requested I refer to her with a fake name to protect her safety, had initially joined hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets in February to demand a return to their democratically elected government. But by late March she was too afraid to leave home, after more than 500 people, including many children, had been shot or beaten to death by soldiers. Thousands of activists, politicians, and journalists have been arrested in Myanmar, also known as Burma, and videos on TikTok show security forces threatening to shoot whoever they encounter.

“We need to hide because the military is searching the factories.”

So protesters like Nann are also using another tactic: attempting to stifle the country’s economy as part of a massive movement to cut off the military’s funding and pressure the generals to give up power. Factory workers, doctors, bankers, teachers, and many others are striking from their jobs and boycotting the military’s many businesses. Shops have stopped selling Myanmar Beer, which is made with help from one military-linked company, and people are throwing away SIM cards produced by another. Activists are also pressuring multinational companies like Adidas that do business in Myanmar to join the movement, too.

Since February, the US government has put financial sanctions on generals leading the coup, and on two of the military’s major conglomerates, Myanma Economic Holdings Limited and the Myanmar Economic Corporation. (Other sanctions were already in place because of the military’s prior killing campaigns against ethnic minorities like Rohingya Muslims.) The Biden administration has also suspended some trade deals with the country, and it froze more than $1 billion of Myanmar government funds in the United States.

But Burmese activists say these actions don’t go nearly far enough. They want the US government, companies, and even celebrities to do much more to stop the flow of money to the soldiers who are slaughtering people in the streets. Moe Sandar Myint, 37, who leads one of Myanmar’s largest garment worker union federations, told me over the phone through a translator that workers who sew clothes for American customers have been arrested and killed for protesting. “We need to hide because the military is searching the factories,” she said. “Please help the workers in Myanmar.”

Here’s a look at some of companies based in the United States or popular here that do work in Myanmar and are now facing pressure from activists.

Chevron: “A curse”

Chevron is the US company with perhaps the largest sway in Myanmar. For decades, the oil and gas company has worked through a subsidiary with Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE)—a state-owned company that is now controlled by the military junta and represents its single largest source of funding—to help run a massive gas pipeline that has been linked to alleged human rights abuses.

The Yadana pipeline, majority-owned and operated by the French company Total, transports natural gas from the Andaman Sea through dense jungle and rugged terrain to Yangon, Myanmar’s most populous city, as well as Thailand. Aung Kyaw (not his real name), an activist who focuses on transparency in the oil and gas sector, and who is now in hiding after his colleagues were arrested, grew up in southeastern Myanmar near the pipeline, and recalls soldiers clearing whole villages of ethnic Karen families to make way for it, sometimes beating, killing, and raping people in the process.

Chevron has called the allegations of human rights abuses “baseless” in the past. It now has a 28 percent stake in the project and likely paid MOGE about $560 million between 2015 and 2019, according to a Reuters analysis; MOGE makes more than $1 billion annually and has been accused of misappropriating funds, including to pad generals’ pockets. “Stopping the oil and gas money is vital for the democratic struggle,” Aung Kyaw told me over the phone.

“Stopping the oil and gas money is vital for the democratic struggle,” said one activist.

But while the pipeline is problematic for the democracy movement, it also helps power hospitals and millions of people’s homes during the coronavirus pandemic. A coalition of local and international rights groups like Global Witness wants Total and Chevron to keep the gas flowing but to temporarily stop giving taxes and other pipeline-related payments to the military regime. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, which overwhelmingly won the democratic elections in November, before the military coup, recently asked foreign oil and gas companies to cut ties with the junta and put all of these payments from energy projects into “protected accounts,” like escrow accounts that can be monitored by a neutral third party to make sure the funds are not spent on weapons. They also want the US government to put sanctions on MOGE, something that did not happen during previous military regimes. “We are not asking [Chevron] to stop paying,” says Aung Kyaw. “They should pay, but not to the junta.”

The oil and gas companies have so far been unreceptive to these ideas. Total argues that withholding payments and taxes to Myanmar’s military regime would break the country’s laws. And placing the money into an escrow account, Total’s chief executive recently said, could put local pipeline employees at risk of arrest. Some activists point out that many oil and gas workers have joined the protests themselves and so already face danger. And they argue that withholding taxes from the military would be legal—because the military illegitimately seized control of the government, and because the democratically elected leaders, some of whom are now detained, recently announced a tax collection halt in a bid to deter the generals from misusing public funds.

Chevron executives say that much of the company’s payments to MOGE are in the form of in-kind distribution of natural gas, not cash that could be easily placed into an escrow account. In a statement to Mother Jones, a Chevron spokesperson said it would keep working with the pipeline operators. But “we condemn human rights abuses,” the spokesperson added. “We are monitoring the situation closely and hope for a peaceful resolution through dialogue.” Total pledged to donate the equivalent of what it owes in taxes in Myanmar to human rights groups there.

Foreign oil and gas projects in Myanmar are “a curse,” says Aung Kyaw, who believes the generals are motivated to keep power because of how rich the pipelines make them. “If we cannot stop the oil and gas money, we will lose this democratic struggle.” 

Facebook, Apple, Google, and other tech companies

After the Myanmar military seized power in February, it quickly restricted people’s access to the internet. The coup leaders didn’t want them to log onto Facebook and other social media websites, which protesters could use to coordinate marches and share footage of the soldiers’ violent crackdowns.

Yet the generals themselves continued to rely on these platforms to spread their propaganda. Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing offered an early statement about the coup on Facebook. He made baseless claims that the democratic elections were not valid because of voter fraud, echoing Donald Trump’s rhetoric about US elections.

Facebook—which the Myanmar military previously used to incite violence against Rohingya Muslims—soon sided with the protesters. In late February, the company banned the military’s state and media entities from Facebook and Instagram, and it blocked ads linked with military companies. “We’re continuing to treat the situation in Myanmar as an emergency and we remain focused on the safety of our community, and the people of Myanmar more broadly,” one of Facebook’s policy directors wrote in a statement. But the ban didn’t go as far as some activists hoped: Weeks later, several military company pages still remain active on the social media site. (A Facebook spokesperson says the pages were kept up because they did not include advertisements.)

Other US tech companies have ties to the junta-controlled Mytel telecommunications company, a joint venture between Myanmar’s military and Vietnam’s defense ministry that provides cellphone service to residents in Myanmar. A group of activists in Silicon Valley are pressuring US shops to sever their connections with Mytel.

One of the activists, Benjamin Ames, a San Francisco carpenter who lived in Myanmar as a Buddhist monk in 2003, started researching businesses in the country after the coup because he worried about his friends’ safety there. He soon realized that a tech billing and mobile identity company not far from his home in San Francisco, called Boku, had forged a partnership with Mytel last August to help people pay for games, in-app content, and other digital services. Online billing companies like Boku often have tools to identify and track people’s locations, and Ames worries these tools could be dangerous if they were put in the hands of a violent military regime. (Boku did not respond to a request for comment.)

“People are afraid to use Mytel,” a Burmese journalist who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons told me over the phone. “Some are throwing away their Mytel SIM cards; if the military wants to track people, they can do it easily.” A French company called Voltalia that worked with Mytel withdrew from Myanmar in March. Ames hopes public awareness will pressure Boku to end its partnership, too.

Meanwhile, Texas-based private equity firm TPG Capital owns mobile tower companies in Myanmar that provide service for Mytel. And Google and Apple host apps from the military-linked business. None of these companies responded to a request for comment.

Adidas, H&M, LL Bean, and other clothing retailers

Many of Myanmar’s protest leaders are garment workers who have been fired, arrested, and shot at for fighting the military. Most of them are women.

The garment sector, like the tech sector, is much smaller than the oil and gas sector in Myanmar. But it has grown rapidly since the mid-2010s, when the former military regime began shifting toward democracy after decades of dictatorship, convincing the United States and other countries to ease previous sanctions. Most shipments from local clothing factories go to Asian countries like China and South Korea, but Western companies lured by the promise of cheap labor have sourced products from Myanmar too, including European brands that are popular with Americans, like Sweden-based H&M, Spain-based Inditex (which owns Zara), and Germany-based Adidas. In the United States, luggage maker Samsonite and clothing company LL Bean are among the bigger importers.

In February, as the police in Myanmar issued arrest warrants for union leaders involved in protests, people gathered outside factories with signs that begged some of these brands to help them. Many garment workers felt especially vulnerable because they live in dormitories that were now subject to raids: Mai Ei Ei Phyu, whose union represents workers at a factory that makes jackets for Adidas, went into hiding after cops searched for her at her hostel, according to the New York Times.

On February 18, workers who produce clothing for the Irish fashion retailer Primark were allegedly locked inside their factory by supervisors who tried to prevent them from joining anti-coup demonstrations. (The factory denied the allegations, and Primark—which, like most Western brands does not operate or own the factories supplying it—said it was suspending orders from the factory until an investigation was completed, according to a report by the Guardian.)

Some Western brands say they oppose the violence, but for many garment workers, their public declarations of solidarity have seemed tepid. Adidas’ statement on March 5 even had a typo in it, giving the impression that it was written without much thought. “We condone all forms of violence,” the company wrote, perhaps intending to use the word “condemn,” in a letter calling “for a return to democratic norms and the rule of law.”

One of the bloodiest days for factory workers was March 14, a Sunday. The junta sent troops into Yangon’s garment district and killed dozens of people after Chinese-owned factories were set on fire. The next day, thousands of workers fled the district. When some tried to collect their wages first, a Chinese-managed factory allegedly called the army, who shot more people. 

Western brands were mostly silent after this crackdown, says Breanna Randall, an activist in Australia who formerly lived on the outskirts of Yangon and is now organizing a campaign to pressure Adidas to speak out. “We are being shot in the streets during the day,” Moe Sandar Myint, who leads the garment workers’ union federation, recently said as part of another campaign. Moe Sandar Myint is now in hiding herself after her home was raided by police. “We have made the global apparel brands huge profits with our bare hands over the years,” she added, and “the very least they should do right now is ensure we are not fired simply for wishing not to live under a military dictatorship. Amidst such an undisputed human rights travesty, their silence thus far is appalling.” 

Western clothing companies don’t have as much power as gas companies to change the minds of Myanmar’s military generals. But activists say they could still have a big impact on the public morale and help save people’s lives by showing solidarity with protesters. Garment union leaders are urging these retailers to put out more statements, including in Burmese language, opposing the coup and promising to ensure the factories they work with don’t punish employees for protesting or reveal their locations to the police. “We are deeply concerned about the situation in Myanmar and condemn all forms of violence,” Stefan Pursche, an Adidas spokesperson, told Mother Jones when asked about these demands. He said the company was in contact with its local suppliers. “Our primary concern is the safety and wellbeing of the workers in our partner factories.”

Nann, the medical student in eastern Myanmar who has tried to get the attention of Beyoncé and Adidas, isn’t impressed with the company’s English statements. “It’s a little weak,” she says.

She and other activists are now considering how hard to push Western companies, and how broad they’d like financial sanctions to be—a debate that existed under Myanmar’s prior military regimes too. In early March, H&M became one of the first major retailers to confirm that it would temporarily suspend its orders from suppliers in Myanmar because of the coup. Some other European brands followed suit, including The Benetton Group. Vicky Bowman of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, a think tank that gives advice to companies about respecting human rights in Myanmar, says it’s logical to put investments on hold right now. But she worries that if certain European and American brands are driven out of the country, it could make things worse for everyday people there, since some of these companies improved working conditions in cities where many people make just a few dollars a day. “If Western brands that take labor rights seriously stop sourcing from Myanmar, the sector will go backward to the way it was 10 years ago,” she says. Sanctions that affect the garment sector could also lead to mass layoffs and factory closures in an industry that was already crippled by the coronavirus pandemic.

“As long as money is coming into the military the way it has for so long, the military is not going to step down.”

But many Burmese union leaders say they are willing to take these risks to their livelihoods in order to fight the dictatorship with sanctions. “Yes, we suffer because of it, but we can bear with that,” says Aung Kyaw, the activist focused on the oil and gas sector. He and many others believe sanctions against the military were one of the most powerful tools to prompt democratic reforms about a decade ago, and could be more effective now if governments apply them to more junta-run businesses. “The unions’ unequivocal consensus is that they want broader sanctions,” says Brian Finnegan, a global workers’ rights coordinator with the AFL-CIO union federation in the United States, which has worked with unions in Myanmar for years to improve labor conditions there. The goal isn’t to lose Western brands forever, but to convince them to suspend their business in the country until a democratic government is restored. “They just know that as long as money is coming into the military the way it has for so long, the military is not going to step down.”

“The Myanmar people are sanctioning their own government,” adds Randall in Australia, referring to the local boycotts. “They’re willing to tear the country apart by stopping any kind of labor that contributes to the government, and they want the world to follow their lead. If the international community doesn’t support them, it makes the fight last longer.”

Moe Sandar Myint, the union federation leader, agrees that many people are willing to make economic sacrifices in order to oust the regime. “We need to think about life under the military dictatorship and how cruel it is, and compare the hardship we’d face under sanctions to the hardship we face under the military,” she says. “We don’t want military leaders.”

Back in eastern Myanmar, Nann remains afraid to leave her home. She keeps posting messages to Beyoncé on Facebook and Twitter but still hasn’t gotten a reply from the singer. “I feel hopeful” one will come, she tells me quietly over the phone, “but not yet.”