Mother Jones Magazine

Our Plastic Is Poisoning Eggs Eaten by the World’s Poor, Study Finds

This story was originally published by Canada’s National Observer and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Eggs eaten by some of the world’s poorest people are being poisoned by plastic waste from rich countries like Canada and the United States, new research has found.

A suite of harmful chemicals are added to plastic and food packaging to give them desirable traits, like grease resistance or flexibility. When they burn or break down, these chemicals contaminate the surrounding environment and animals living or feeding nearby.

Chickens can absorb the chemicals by drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated worms and insects. Eggs are particularly sensitive to containing toxic chemicals and are commonly consumed by people, according to the report produced by the International Pollutant Elimination Network (IPEN), a global coalition of environmental organizations.

The problem is most acute for people in low- and middle-income countries at the receiving end of the multibillion-dollar global trade in plastic and electronic waste. According to the recent study, which was not peer-reviewed, people eating free-range eggs raised near 25 plastic waste dumps and recycling centres in 14 low- and middle-income countries are exposed to levels of toxic chemicals far beyond safe limits to human health.

“I’m really impressed,” said Max Liboiron, a professor of geography at Memorial University who specializes in plastic pollution. (Liboiron was not involved in the research.) “These folk are looking at the mixing of plastic and e-waste in the actual conditions that the waste occurs, they’re looking at the way people actually eat eggs…and they’re looking at a range of chemicals (that) exist in the real world.”

It’s a “really, really rare” approach, Liboiron explained, as most research into the toxicity of plastics only looks at a select few chemicals in a laboratory setting. That can make it difficult to assess the full impact plastic waste disposal and recycling have on human health and the environment. The problem is exacerbated by the chemicals’ tendency to change—and often become more toxic—when exposed to heat, light and other chemicals and metals.

“The chemical that goes into plastic isn’t necessarily the same chemical that comes out. It can change when you expose it to air, water, different pH, different salinities,” explained Imari Karega Walker, a PhD candidate at Duke University studying the environmental impact of plastic additives.

Those factors can create a suite of chemicals that fly under industry and government safety checks on new plastic products, yet pose a danger to the environment and human health, she said. The IPEN study looked at some of those compounds in its broad assessment of persistent organic pollutants, like carcinogenic dioxins and biphynols produced from burning plastic waste, for instance.

The study’s choice to assess recycling sites as well as open landfills is also important, Liboiron noted. For years, the global plastics industry has promoted recycling as a sustainable and safe way to dispose of harmful plastics. The findings point out that those promises may not be accurate.

Furthermore, they highlight the ongoing problems arising from rich countries’ waste exports to the developing world.

“A lot of our waste management systems rely on exports … the United States, UK, Europe (and Canada) don’t have a functional waste infrastructure,” Liboiron explained. “(We’re) implicated, because it’s quite literally our waste.”

Earlier this year, Canada officially entered into the Basel Convention’s plastic agreement, a global treaty restricting the international trade in plastic waste. However, critics have noted that in fall 2020, the federal government quietly signed an agreement with the United States to allow the free flow of plastic waste between the two countries.

Roughly 93 percent of Canada’s plastic waste exports go to the United States, according to data by the Basel Action Network (BAN), an environmental organization. Because the United States isn’t a signatory to the treaty, it can export Canadian plastic garbage to poorer countries.

Each month, about 25.7 million kilograms of plastic waste—mainly low-quality, unrecyclable plastic of uncertain origin—leaves US shores for countries like Malaysia, Mexico and Vietnam, BAN reports. While countries have in recent years tried to stem some of the flow, which is technically illegal, many have had trouble stopping the import of trash from overseas.

In theory, if the receiving country has signed the Basel Convention—as 188 countries have—it can’t accept the waste without a bilateral agreement with the United States. However, economic pressure and a lack of enforcement can make it nearly impossible to stem the flow, according to a December investigation into the issue.

“The whole thing can be understood as waste colonialism,” Liboiron said. “It’s our export of waste to other places, but the reason they import our waste is because of existing colonial legacies where we’ve taken out anything else of value already, and now their most viable choice is to import our (trash).”

Kyrsten Sinema Once Called Joe Lieberman “Pathetic.” Now He’s Coming to Her Defense.

In a Washington Post op-ed published late Monday night, Kyrsten Sinema offered her most detailed statement yet on why she does not support abolishing or reforming the filibuster—the Senate rule that requires 60 votes to bring a piece of legislation to the floor for a final vote. While acknowledging that some measures she supports, such as the For the People voting-rights package, are almost certain to be filibustered, Sinema argued that the long-term benefits of keeping the supermajority requirements outweigh the drawbacks. “The filibuster compels moderation and helps protect the country from wild swings between opposing policy poles,” she wrote.

Sinema’s stance won’t win her more friends among Democrats in Washington or her home state (where activists protested outside her office on Tuesday). But she drew praise from a source that would have once seemed unusual. In a visit to his old office, the former Connecticut Democrat-turned-independent Sen. Joe Lieberman told reporters that Sinema was right to defend the filibuster, even if he believed it was a fight she’d lose in the end.

Few moments illustrate so perfectly the personal and political evolution of Arizona’s junior senator. When Sinema was first becoming active in state politics as a lefty political activist—she ran as a Green Party member and as an independent before finally joining the Democratic fold—she viewed Lieberman as the embodiment of Washington sellouts. As I reported in a profile of Sinema for the magazine, Sinema even protested outside of a Lieberman campaign event when the senator was running for president in 2003.

“He’s a shame to Democrats,” she told a reporter from the Hartford Courant at the time. “I don’t even know why he’s running. He seems to want to get Republicans voting for him—what kind of strategy is that?” Lieberman, she added, was “pathetic.”

Sinema famously adjusted her rhetoric and her tactics as she climbed the political ladder, but the disdain for Lieberman lingered. Even in 2010—after she’d written a manifesto called Unite and Conquer about using radical acceptance to put aside personal differences and work across the aisle—she continued to take shots at Lieberman. At a town hall that year in Sedona after the party lost a Senate special election in Massachusetts, she tried to spin the loss of the Democrats’ filibuster-proof supermajority as a positive, in that it would eliminate the need to keep Lieberman on board. They could just come up with a process that netted them 50 votes.

“So what does that mean? Well, in the Senate, we no longer have 60 votes. Some would argue we never had 60, because one of those was Joseph Lieberman,” Sinema said, making a look of disgust, for comic effect. “But that’s—whatever. Yeah, and [Ben] Nelson too, but really”—she lowered her voice and shook her fist—“Lieberman.”

“So now…there’s none of this pressure, this false pressure to get to 60,” she continued. “So what that means is the Democrats can stop kowtowing to Joe Lieberman and instead seek other avenues to move forward with health reform. And so it’s likely that the Senate will move forward with a process called reconciliation, which takes only 51 votes.”

These two eras and senators aren’t fully comparable, but it’s quite a time capsule. To many Democrats today—and to Kyrsten Sinema then—the Democratic Congress of 2009 and 2010 was a cautionary tale about letting a handful of senators gum up the works. It was liberating to realize you didn’t have to bind yourself to arbitrary supermajority requirements, or spend months scrambling to find one or two Republican votes. But more than a decade later, Sinema is in Lieberman’s shoes. She has the power she wished she had then—and far less of an inclination to use it.

Voting Rights Bill Will Be Blocked by the Anti-Democratic System It Seeks to Reform

Congressional Democrats’ signature voting rights bill, the For the People Act, is set to be defeated on Tuesday by the very anti-democratic system it’s meant to reform.

The 50 Democratic senators who support the For the People Act (or least Sen. Joe Manchin’s compromise proposal keeping some key elements of the bill while excluding others) represent 43 million more Americans than the 50 Republican senators who oppose it, according to data compiled by Alex Tausanovitch of the Center for American Progress. Yet because of the 60-vote requirement to pass most legislation, 41 Republican senators representing just 21 percent of the country can block the bill from moving forward, even though it’s supported by 68 percent of the public, according to recent polling.

The bill wouldn’t change the deeply unrepresentative nature of the US Senate, but it would expand voting access for millions of Americans through policies like automatic voter registration and two weeks of early voting, while cracking down on partisan gerrymandering and dark money to make the system more fair.

Yet Democrats and Republicans are playing by two different sets of rules. Because Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) will not support getting rid of the filibuster, Democrats must find 10 GOP votes to pass legislation to preserve American democracy—essentially giving Mitch McConnell veto power over protecting voting rights—while heavily gerrymandered GOP state legislatures unilaterally enact a barrage of new voter suppression bills through a simple majority vote that will make it harder for Democrats to win future elections.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 22 of the 24 laws passed this year to restrict voting access were introduced and sponsored solely by Republicans and passed over the objections of the Democratic minority—the reverse of what is happening in the Senate right now. When Mitch McConnell called the For the People Act “a partisan power grab” on Monday, he was actually perfectly describing what Republicans are doing in the states. In a Washington Post op-ed on Monday, Sinema expressed her fear that if Democrats eliminated the filibuster to pass the For the People Act, Republicans would retaliate by passing new voter ID laws and restrictions on mail voting when they take the majority, but that is exactly what is already happening at the state level, Greg Sargent notes in the Post, and what the For the People Act is designed to stop. 

41 GOP Senators who represent 21% of the US population can block the For the People Act—a sweeping piece of legislation that would expand voting protections for all Americans.@AriBerman explains:pic.twitter.com/ShHkcVwDCq

— Mother Jones (@MotherJones) June 22, 2021

At every level, Democrats are at a disadvantage: They must win millions more votes than Republicans simply to reach a split Senate, only to see their agenda thwarted by GOP senators from a small number of disproportionately rural, white, conservative states.

Democratic leaders hope that the GOP’s blockade of the For the People Act, combined with filibusters on legislation such as the January 6 commission and equal pay for women, will convince the likes of Manchin and Sinema to reconsider their position on the filibuster. Voting rights advocates including Stacey Abrams have been arguing for months that voting rights legislation should be exempted from the filibuster, a position that has been embraced by influential Democrats like Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), chair of the Senate Rules Committee. “This is the once-in-a-century moment to protect people’s right to vote,” Klobuchar told me in March.

The right to vote is sacred—it is the foundation of our democracy. Congress cannot stand idly by as attacks on the ballot box ramp up nationwide. This body has a solemn duty to protect the people's voice.

We must pass voting rights. No matter what. https://t.co/HpqeBzfDs3

— Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock (@SenatorWarnock) June 22, 2021

Democrats in states hit hard by GOP voter suppression efforts have been forcefully making the argument that this is their last best chance to stop such tactics. “What could be more hypocritical and cynical than invoking minority rights in the Senate as a pretext for preventing debate about how to preserve minority rights in the society?” Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) said on the Senate floor on Tuesday. “Right now, constitutional rights across our nation are being assaulted, and I fear that if we don’t act as a body in this moment, we will have crossed a dangerous rubicon in our nation that will make it extremely difficult for the next generation to secure voting rights for every eligible American. This is not just another moment in another Congress. We should not just think of this as routine. This is a defining moment.”

In Buffalo, New York, Voters Consider a Socialist Mayor

During a typical winter, the city of Buffalo, New York, sees more than 70 inches of snow. This year, as the snow piled up, India Walton went door to door, snowy day after snowy day, collecting petition signatures to appear on the ballot as a mayoral candidate. “It was very cold and a lot of people were reluctant to open their doors,” Walton said. “But we made it.” After more than 77 inches of snow and 2000 signatures, it is summer and Walton is running for mayor. The election is today. 

While all eyes have been on the mayoral race in New York City, the upstate city of Buffalo is poised for a potential swing. Walton, a lifelong Buffalonian, former nurse, and founding executive director of a local land trust, is a socialist. She looks to Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) as a role model. She says she obsesses over the reports from organizations like the Vera Institute, a non-profit aimed at tackling mass incarceration, and the Fair Fines + Fees Coalition, a local group of researchers seeking to end exploitative traffic enforcement.

Nationwide, we’re seeing “progressive Democrats running quite clearly on being progressive.” 

In her first 100 days, Walton has promised to sign a tenant’s bill of rights that would install a tenant advocate and institute rent control. She wants to remove police from responding to most mental health calls. She plans to declare Buffalo a sanctuary city. She would be the first woman to mayor Buffalo. While there are other radical mayors in the United States, Walton would be the only socialist mayor in a major city.  

It would be a change for the Western New York community. The current four-term mayor is Byron Brown. After a lackluster police reform agenda required by the state, Brown has drawn heavy criticism. The Working Families Party, which supported Brown in previous elections, now backs Walton’s campaign, saying they were partly influenced by protests after the death of George Floyd.

Buffalo’s mayoral race is one of several in New York state where the incumbents face challenges from more left-leaning candidates. There is Rev. Valerie Faust in Albany, an activist who has criticized the treatment of protestors last summer, and Malik Evans in Rochester, who introduced a police accountability board as a city council member. “I think what you’re seeing in upstate is pretty similar to what the discussion is at the national level in the Democratic Party,” Shana Kushner Gadarian, a political science professor at Syracuse University, told City & State, “which is the progressive wing being more prominent than what you’ve seen in the past, and progressive Democrats running quite clearly on being progressive.” 

For Walton this means “pushing the boundaries of what progressive politics means in Buffalo” so that “we can build an infrastructure of our own that can take on the status quo.”

Still, Walton faces the hurdle of beating an incumbent with name recognition and donations from city hall employees. Last minute donations to Brown, including from billionaires in the Jacobs family, who run the food service and hospitality company Delaware North, may hurt her chances. 

Walton welcomes the challenge. “There are lots of periods in my life where I saw a problem, and in my quest to be helpful, it sort of took me on a different trajectory, and running for mayor is no different,” she said. “I see a lack of leadership. I believe I can do better.” 

Walton says her own life and work experiences have shaped her political ambitions. At 19, she gave birth to twin sons who were born prematurely and required care at the NICU. Although the care was good, the staff used jargony language. It was hard to make informed decisions about her children’s care. So Walton went back to school. She became a nurse and then went back and worked in the same NICU that cared for her sons. “Being able to deliver babies and save lives and have that type of impact on families was so meaningful,” Walton said. The experience also caused her to reflect on how women of color are treated in hospitals across the country.

“It’s not only healthcare, it’s finances, housing—every system in this country was designed to exclude poor people and people of color,” Walton said. “And until we start having serious conversations about how we undo that, and until we begin to pursue policies that actively undoes the harm that’s been caused, we’re not going to get very far as a country.”

Her activist background and working-class solidarity has won her support in the city of 255,000 with a nearly 30 percent poverty rate. She’s backed by organizations including the Democratic Socialists of America and a local teachers federation, and she was recently praised by The Challenger, a weekly Buffalo newspaper for the Black community. So devoted are her campaign volunteers that they have made a vow to tattoo a local barbecue marinade logo on themselves to fundraise.

Incumbent Brown has refused to debate Walton, so she has had to work hard to put herself in front of voters leading up to election day. She drew cheers while asking people to vote for her during Buffalo’s Porchfest, a community music festival modeled after a similar event in Ithaca, and visited voters in the tight community on the East Side where she grew up.

Reflecting on how that community has fared in her lifetime, she noted the lack of grocery stores, post offices, and banks. She pointed to a proposed $30 million project that would revitalize the town’s waterfront district “when the majority of working class Buffalonians are struggling just to get the basic necessities.”

When I talked to Walton on the fifth day of early voting, she expressed confidence about her chances of winning, thanks to the support of the city’s working class.

“I think that we’re coming to a point of reckoning,” she said.

Behind the Video of Cops Brutalizing Kids for Vaping Is a History of Racial Exclusion, Force, and Profit

With a group of seven friends, Brian Anderson, 19, was celebrating senior week on the Ocean City, Maryland, boardwalk: a three-mile stretch of novelty T-shirt shops, beachfront hotels, and fried food vendors. It was 8:30 pm on June 14, their last night in town before they headed back to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and he was smoking a vape in an area where vaping is banned by a town ordinance.

It’s unclear exactly what happened next; by the time a bystander hit record on their cell phone, Anderson was already down on the boardwalk planks, at least five police personnel looming over him. According to the police department’s version of events, Anderson didn’t follow an order to stop vaping, then refused to provide ID—becoming  “disorderly,” in law enforcement parlance. Anderson, however, told a Baltimore news anchor that he put his vape away at an officer’s request and started leaving with his friends, but police kept following them. When asked for his ID, he questioned why. “The next thing I know, I’m just on the ground,” he recounted.

In the video, Anderson yells “I’m not resisting,” as six officers surround him, some holding him down. “Why don’t you tell me what you’re arresting me for?” he shouts. Before he finishes his question, an officer drives a knee into Anderson’s side.

“I just asked God to give me the strength and to guide me, protect me so that this officer doesn’t make this my last day,” Anderson said. He was charged with disorderly conduct, failure to provide proof of identity, second-degree assault, and resisting arrest.

After the video of Anderson’s arrest went viral, yet another video circulated of Ocean City cops tasing a Black teenager accused of smoking on the boardwalk less than a week earlier. In that video, taken on June 6, police confront 18-year-old Taizier Griffin. The police department contends, in a Facebook statement, that Griffin “threatened to kill” officers and spit on them; the video shows only him putting his hands up. When they yell at him to get down on the ground, he reaches his hand toward his backpack strap, is hit by a Taser, and crumples. A bystander says: “It happened last year, too.”

What in the world is going on in Ocean City? Details from the 60-second video of Anderson’s arrest gesture at a decadeslong story of racial exclusion, force, and profit.

 

The beach

Ocean City’s beach and boardwalk were, for most of the town’s history, reserved only for white people. Black beachgoers could enjoy the sun and sand only on “Colored Excursion Days”: three days in September when business owners sold off leftover food and souvenirs, extracting their last profits of the season. Black families in Maryland flocked instead to properties on the other side of the bay, including Carr’s Beach, which was run by the daughters of formerly enslaved people. To Baltimore resident Mike Lee, who spoke to the Baltimore Times last year, Carr’s Beach offered “a safe haven, a place where we could do what we wanted to do, and not have anyone looking over us, like law enforcement.”

It took a 1955 federal appeals court to legally desegregate Ocean City’s shore along with the rest of Maryland’s beaches. In a lawsuit brought by the NAACP, the court ruled “that racial segregation in recreational activities can no longer be sustained as a proper exercise of the police power of the State.” Yet local business owners refused to integrate, and the town and its tourists remained overwhelmingly white. By 1986, just 2 percent of Ocean City visitors were Black, as were 3 percent of customer-facing resort staff. (Behind the facade, Black people kept the place running, making up 75 percent of kitchen staff, janitors, and housekeepers.)

As of 2019, Ocean City’s full-time residents were 95 percent white, according to the Census Bureau. Yet the tourist crowd, an economic boon the town claims is worth $1.74 billion, has been getting more diverse in recent years, says Rosie Bean, who organized 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstrations on the boardwalk. According to Bean, the demographic shift in tourism has sparked conflict with the town’s white, longtime visitors. “There’s a lot of rebel flags around here,” Bean says. “A lot of racism.” Last year, about a month after Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis, bundles of KKK literature were found scattered on the sidewalks. The city’s white mayor and police chief participated in one of Bean’s demonstrations, but Bean now looks back on their involvement as “performative politics.”

“They said they want change? They didn’t change anything,” Bean says. “For us, it’s not a PR stunt.”

 

The show of force

For most of the year, Ocean City is a town of about 7,000 people and 105 police officers. That comes out to about 15 cops per thousand residents—a higher ratio than 99 percent of other police departments, according to the Police Scorecard, a project to analyze law enforcement statistics across the country. But on the average summer day, when tourists pour in, the town population reaches 230,000. So every year in May, the police department doubles its force, partly through the use of “seasonal officers.” Those summer cops, including 46 hired this year, get their guns and powers of arrest after less than a quarter of the training required of year-round law enforcement. Becoming a seasonal officer is a well-worn path to a year-round job at the OCPD. Officer Patrick McElfish, the arresting officer for one of Anderson’s friends, joined the department full-time last year after summer cop gigs in 2018 and 2019.

Seasonal officers’ use of force in resort towns has produced other troubling incidents. In Wildwood, New Jersey, a summer cop punched a woman in the head as part of a crackdown on underage drinking in 2018. On Nantucket, Massachusetts, a group of seasonal and full-time officers injured a group of eight Black youth, smashing one teen’s face into the pavement, after telling them to move off the sidewalk.

Ocean City Police Department’s budget this year totals more than $24 million and costs the town about a quarter of its general fund. By 2024, OCPD plans to hire 33 more cops than the department had in 2020, in a plan so far supported by the mayor and city council. (One councilman, Mark Paddack, was a police officer for 28 years, including 10 years as a police union president.)

At least 13 law enforcement employees are depicted in the video of Anderson’s arrest.

 

The yellow shirts

In the OCPD, a yellow shirt denotes a “public safety aide”: high school graduates, 17 and a half years or older, some of whom are assigned to patrol shifts after a one-week training. They don’t carry a gun, but they have the power to enforce civil violations, as well as issue parking tickets and transport people who have been arrested. This summer, OCPD hired 60 of them.

In the video of Anderson’s arrest, one of the aides helps hold him down, while others provide crowd control. In the video of Griffin, an aide steps front of the videographer as police arrest Griffin after he’s just been tased, backing up protesting bystanders.

 

The thin blue line patch

As he stands over Anderson, one officer reveals his “thin blue line” patch, a symbol of the Blue Lives Matter movement. Andrew Jacob, the white entrepreneur who dreamed up this flag as a college undergraduate, told journalist Jeff Sharlet in 2018 that the black stars and stripes above the blue line represent “citizens…and the black below represents criminals.” Today the flag signifies both support for law enforcement and opposition to racial justice movements. Staff in Maryland district courts are banned from wearing the symbol because of its association with white supremacists.

In a second video from the June 14 arrests, the patch-wearing cop uses a Taser on one of Anderson’s friends as he struggles with two other officers.

 

The knee

The OCPD did not return multiple requests for comment on the identity of the officer who drove his knee at least five times into Anderson’s side, or with more details around both incidents. But court records reported by Matthew Presnky and Rose Velazquez of Delmarva Now identify the cop driving his knee into Anderson’s side at least five times as “Officer Jacobs.” According to Maryland court records, an Ocean City Police Officer named Daniel Jacobs was involved in the June 14 incident, as the arresting officer for one of Anderson’s friends.

In 2018, an Ocean City officer Patrolman First Class Daniel Jacobs was reportedly one of 16 officers involved in an incident in which a cop punched a restrained Black teenager. Earlier this year, the OCPD awarded him two excellent performance commendations.

Top art source photos: Getty; Instagram; New York Times

“I Gave Him a Big Hug”: Let Us Know How You Marked Father’s Day

Other than former blogger and twice-impeached former president Donald Trump wishing Happy Father’s Day to “the Radical Left” and “other Losers of the world,” yesterday saw an outpouring of good wishes, selfless salutes, mutual aid, and charitable giving. There was an 11-year-old raising thousands for COVID relief in honor of dads in India. There was a father-daughter reunion after 40 years apart. There were fundraisers for medical research and an organization that houses families of firefighters and other first responders killed in the line of duty, thanks to a father who completed 1.5 million pushups for charity, breaking the single-year world record.

But not everything was eventful. There were quiet reconnections, Zooms, phone calls, vaccinated hugs, and remembrances: pandemic essays and personal ones (read Terrell Jermaine Starr’s reflection on family discovery at The Root), and archival gems (John McPhee’s “The Patch”). Let us know how you marked Father’s Day:

Why Americans Pay Through the Nose for Brand-Name Drugs

This story was originally published by Undark and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Riti Krishtel’s first case as a legal aid lawyer in India was as tragic as they come. One day in 2004, she recalls a couple walking into her office in Bengaluru with their three children. Unable to afford life-saving medicine to keep their HIV infections in check, the parents were dying of AIDS. With no other options, they wanted Krishtel to draw up guardianship transfer papers: The rambunctious siblings were to be sent to an orphanage before their parents died.

Even though drugs that could save the parents’ lives were available, the cost at the time was out of reach for the couple, who were living in poverty. Krishtel and the collective of lawyers she was working with at the time went on to handle many similar cases. By 2007, she came up with a strategy to slash the cost of HIV drugs in India: On behalf of patients’ rights groups, lawyers with the nonprofit Initiative for Medicines, Access, and Knowledge (I-MAK) she had cofounded would challenge specific patent applications on brand-name drugs, opening opportunities for generic manufacturers. Through a combination of patent expirations and legal challenges, price competition in India drove down the cost of the most common HIV therapy by more than 80 percent between 2003 and 2008.

Hoping for a repeat, in 2015 Krishtel turned the organization’s focus to the United States, where skyrocketing drug prices increasingly threaten to drag families into financial ruin. A 2019 Kaiser Family Foundation survey of more than a thousand Americans found that 29 percent did not take their medicines as prescribed at some point during the previous year because of cost; 8 percent reported that the lapse made their illness worse. The reasons for high prescription drug prices in America are complex and varied. But the patent system, Krishtel says, is one culprit.

Drug patents allow companies to recoup the costs of inventing a drug and reap rewards for innovation. For an entirely new drug, a US patent enables a company to sell it exclusively for a set period of time, typically for 20 years from the date it was filed. After the patent expires, other companies are allowed to market generic versions.

The reasons for high prescription drug prices in America are complex and varied. But the patent system is one culprit.

But companies have been abusing the patent system to extend their market monopolies, says Krishtel. A 2018 study from I-MAK found that companies amass patents on existing drugs, blocking competition: The top 12 grossing drugs in the US had an average of 71 patents granted, which almost doubled the time these drugs are protected from generic competition. Many of the granted patents are for minor tweaks, such as combining two drugs into one or altering the dosage—changes that aren’t inventive, Krishtel argues, and thus undeserving of new patents. A 2018 study by Robin Feldman, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, found that 78 percent of new drug patents between 2005 and 2015 were for existing drugs.

“I fiercely defend the patent system,” Feldman says. “I also am appalled when it’s misused.”

An intense debate over whether patents on SARS-CoV-2 vaccines are restricting global access has also recently erupted among members of the World Trade Organization (WTO). But even if the WTO voted to temporarily waive patent protections to enable competition, European Union representatives argue that such waivers would not ramp up supply anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Americans continue to pay the highest prices in the world for brand-name drugs. There is a chance for quick reform: President Biden has yet to name a new director of the US Patent and Trademark Office, who could make it tougher to extend drug patents or easier for generic companies to challenge them.

One patent application Krishtel and I-MAK challenged was held by Illinois-based Abbott Laboratories on a formulation of its HIV drug Aluvia that does not require refrigeration—crucial in hot climates like India. At the Indian patent office in Delhi, she argued that the technique used to make the drug heat stable was not new, Abbott had merely applied the technology to its own drug. Under Indian patent law, a drug cannot be re-patented unless it is also more effective than the existing patented form.

The office refused to grant a patent. Then Krishtel and her team scored two more victories. Patents on another adult HIV drug and on a liquid formulation for children were also refused, which enabled broad access to the drugs for millions of low-income Indians—and people around the world in subsequent years because they were supplied by Indian generic manufacturers at a fraction of the brand-name cost.

The patent system “doesn’t ask whether something is better; it asks whether something is different.”

The US patent system, however, “doesn’t ask whether something is better,” explains Feldman. “It asks whether something is different.” Under that system, an innovation is patentable if the difference between an invention and a similar patented invention is not obvious to someone skilled in the art and if the approach is new.

By simply changing the formulation or mode of delivery—a capsule versus a tablet for example—a drug company can gain a new US patent. In some cases, a mere tweak in dosage can win the drug a new patent. Many patent attorneys including Feldman argue that most such patents aren’t innovative, and that the strategy is just an effort to hold on to profits.

Steven Hadfield of Charlotte, North Carolina is both a beneficiary and a victim of such tactics. The 68-year-old was diagnosed with a rare blood cell cancer called Waldenström’s macroglobulinemia in 2014. The following year, he started taking ibrutinib, a drug manufactured and marketed as Imbruvica by Illinois-based AbbVie, after the Food and Drug Administration approved it for his particular cancer—a more effective treatment than his previous option and likely the reason he is still alive today. But the drug is not a cure; he will have to take it for the rest of his life. The cost to his insurance company: $15,000 per month.

The primary compound in ibrutinib was first patented in 2006. The company has since gained additional patents, some of which are for mere changes in dosage to treat subtypes of lymphoma. It’s a common tactic that companies use to extend patent life and protect profits, says Krishtel. Some experts say it’s debatable whether the additional patents are merited under the current patent requirements. Even with a different dosage, it would be obvious to an expert that ibrutinib would be able to treat Hadfield’s type of cancer, says Mark Ratain, an oncologist and pharmacologist at the University of Chicago, and the approach is “not novel.” To date, brand name ibrutinib is protected by 88 patents that add an additional 5 to 9 years to the manufacturers’ market monopoly.

By 2018—five years after ibrutinib received its first approval from the FDA—its price had increased over 57 percent. In January 2020 alone, its price went up by more than 7 percent over the previous month, according to Patients for Affordable Drugs, a nonprofit advocacy organization. The extended years of monopoly will cost the health care system up to an additional $41 billion in costs, according to I-MAK.

For Hadfield and patients like him, price hikes are financially devastating. He has a $6,850 annual medical deductible and a 25 percent copay after that. His deductible is for all medical services, not just drugs, so his out-of-pocket costs have varied over the years. But assuming he applied his deductible to ibrutinib alone this year and paid 25 percent each month, Hadfield would be responsible for $38,150 of the drug’s cost.

Luckily, he qualifies for an AbbVie sponsored copayment program and pays $10 at the pharmacy. But the program only subsidizes his copay at a maximum of $24,600 per year. Hadfield will still be responsible for the roughly $13,000 in remaining drug costs—almost $20,000 in out of pocket costs this year to treat his cancer alone. He suffers from diabetes and kidney disease too. (In response to a request for comment, AbbVie directed Undark to a website regarding their copayment program.)

To make ends meet, he works three jobs. His primary job is at Walmart, which provides his health insurance, and he juggles his schedule so he can work two additional jobs in the hospitality industry on weekends and during his off hours. His monthly social security check of $1,200 barely covers his rent, he says, so he must continue to work; and because he works, he doesn’t qualify for Medicare’s prescription drug coverage program. He says he lives “week to week or month to month.”

Competition could bring down prices for patients like Hadfield, but drug companies have come up with tactics to avoid it. Existing patent law allows companies to recoup research dollars and reap rewards for their innovations. Bringing a drug to market is expensive: Analysts estimate an average of about $1 billion per drug, which includes the cost of failures. Consequently, patents on new drugs award owners a period of 20 years free from market competition.

Under US law, the first company to market a generic version of a brand-name drug enjoys six months of exclusive sales before another generic maker can sell their product, so the first generic may only be marginally cheaper than the brand-name version. After more generics hit the market, prices can drop up to 95 percent.

In addition to extending patents, Feldman says, the pharmaceutical industry has engaged in other anticompetitive behavior over the past decades that keep generics off the market for even longer. In her book, “Drug Wars,” Feldman documents backroom deals where brand-name companies pay generic manufacturers to delay selling their drugs in a tactic called “pay for delay.” Even a six-month delay in a generic hitting the market can mean billions of dollars in profits for the brand-name company, she explains. Companies then work out ways to share their profits in a tit-for-tat type of deal that isn’t always transparent. Such deals have drawn scrutiny from federal antitrust regulators. But the attention has only forced companies into making more complex deals that fall under the radar, says Feldman, such as a brand-name company agreeing to license, market, and sell generic company drugs in lieu of taking a cash payout—which makes anti-trust allegations difficult to prove.

Steven Hadfield will be almost $20,000 out of pocket this year—just for the drugs to treat his cancer.

In September 2020, the House Oversight Committee invited several drug company CEOs to answer questions about prices. The exchange was tense, but the CEOs did not budge from their mantra that high prices were necessary to fund innovation. At the hearing, Kåre Schultz, CEO of Teva Pharmaceutical Industries in Israel, testified that prices “must reflect the significant cost of ongoing research and development projects.” The committee also subpoenaed Richard Gonzalez, AbbVie’s CEO, for documents concerning the pricing strategy behind ibrutinib and another top selling drug, citing the company’s unwillingness to comply voluntarily with previous requests.

The idea that prices are justified by the cost of developing new drugs is not backed up with data, according to experts. In a recent opinion piece published at STAT, retired intellectual property attorney Alfred Engelberg and colleagues argued that large pharmaceutical companies did not invent most of the drugs they sell, instead acquiring many through mergers with smaller companies, or further developing drugs invented at public research institutions and funded by taxpayer dollars.

Still, the pharmaceutical industry continues to defend the existing patent system. “Our companies continuously find new diseases for which a medicine may be effective, new populations who can benefit from a medicine’s use, better ways to get a medicine to and into patients, and new ways to make a medicine,” wrote Nicole Longo, senior director of public affairs at the industry group the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, in an email to Undark. “As long as these new medical advances meet the statutory requirements for patentability, they rightfully deserve patent protections.”

Drug patents, however, are often revoked. Companies can challenge patents through the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB), a division of the USPTO. A 2019 study found that the PTAB narrowed or overturned patents in 51 percent of cases brought by generic drug makers since 2011.

The high number of successful challenges merely reflects how weak many patents are, says Feldman. The true number of trivial patents is much higher, she adds, and these remain unchallenged because of the high legal costs involved. Companies should pick one set of patents, she says, and “once that’s over it’s done.” No one is arguing that the pharmaceutical industry should not be rewarded for innovative drugs, she adds. But a 20-year monopoly ought to be enough for a company to recoup its costs and earn a profit on top.

In March, a group of senators led by Republican Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Democrat Chris Coons of Connecticut wrote a letter to USPTO interim director Drew Hirshfeld asking him to commission a study on the “current state of patent eligibility jurisprudence in the United States.” The senators were particularly interested in “how the current jurisprudence has adversely impacted investment and innovation in critical technologies.” They asked for their findings to be submitted no later than March of next year.

No specific bills have been made public yet and some critics worry that reforms won’t necessarily curb abuse, considering the $233 million the pharmaceutical industry spends on lobbying in an average year.

In 2017, I-MAK tried to knock down 10 patents on a hepatitis C drug, but the cases never made it to a US court. “The culture was stacked against us,” Krishtel says. In the US, only organizations with a commercial interest are allowed to challenge a patent in court, she explains. She hopes that the new USPTO director will be open to change. “We need to educate the public and to try to get policy reform,” she says. Her experience in India and in other countries has shown how challenging weak drug patents can have an outsized effect.

The couple that came into her office in Bengaluru so many years ago almost certainly died. Krishtel does not know what happened to the children. But by helping to bring down the cost of HIV drugs in India, she knows countless other people were able to continue living. US patent law reform would not only help rein in prices and widen access in America but would also have “a ripple effect” in other countries, she says.

The Escape From the Billionaire Meme Mogul

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One evening in April, Jennifer Sulkess, a 33-year-old filmmaker, was about to order a burger and watch a hockey game at home in New York when she received a WhatsApp message that made her heart race. The message came from Moscow, from a lawyer representing one of her best friends, Anna Fedoseeva. “We need to talk urgently!” the lawyer wrote.

Something terrible has happened, Sulkess thought. She constantly worried about Fedoseeva, ever since her friend had split with her ex-husband, a powerful Russian billionaire named Sergey Grishin. The last time Sulkess received a message from the lawyer like this, two and a half years earlier, Fedoseeva had just been thrown in a Russian jail after Grishin falsely accused her of stealing his money with Sulkess’ help. Both women have been hiding from him ever since.

But the news now was different, Fedoseeva’s lawyer assured her: One of Grishin’s recent personal assistants wanted to speak with Sulkess right away. Sulkess jumped on the phone and listened as the assistant breathlessly listed the reasons she feared they all might be in danger. It’s just a matter of time before this is going to explode, Sulkess recalls her saying.

Sergey Grishin, 54, has spent more than a decade living on and off in the United States, where he is well-connected. Last August, he made the news when he sold his lavish, 7-acre estate near Santa Barbara, California, to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. His multiple US-based businesses include a social media company in California with more than 300 million Instagram followers. Called 421 Media, it pumps out viral Instagram content—everything from food porn to photos of nail art—hoping to attract more followers, who attract advertisers like HBO Max and Paramount.

Sergey Grishin, seated, on the set of a music video

 Sergey Grishin’s Instagram Account

But the company’s hundreds of millions of followers may not realize that by sharing these viral posts, they’re helping to enrich a man who has been accused in court documents of harassing and abusing Sulkess, Fedoseeva, and other women, sometimes using online channels, including personal Instagram accounts owned by a previous social media company he created.

This article is based on a review of thousands of pages of court records, letters to law enforcement, copies of text messages, and social media posts, as well as interviews with Grishin’s former personal assistant, women who accuse him of harassing and threatening them, and their attorneys. Grishin declined to answer dozens of questions put to him by Mother Jones, but he said through his attorneys that he “denies each of the lurid and sensational claims made against him” by “sources whose credibility is seriously in doubt,” and that he “has never been charged with any crimes because he has not violated the law.” Yet it’s undeniable that women in multiple countries are living in fear of the billionaire. Brushed off by law enforcement, these women have largely been left to fend for themselves.

Minutes after hanging up the phone, Sulkess booked a flight to Los Angeles to meet up with the assistant, Ilona Kevorkian. Within days, I was sitting in front of them in a conference room in San Francisco. It was like something out of a movie. Two women who for years had been on opposite sides of the same nightmare—Sulkess, fighting against Grishin in court, and Kevorkian, who had been paid professionally to cater to his needs—were now coming together to try to expose him.

“He tells you what he’s going to do—you have to pay attention.”

Sulkess, who keeps her reddish-brown hair pulled into a messy bun, sat beside a large binder she carries whenever she travels, filled with court documents about Grishin and evidence she’s collected. For three years, she has coped with her anxiety about him by spending nearly every waking hour working on her legal cases against him and looking for hints about his next move. On her laptop, she has archived hundreds of screenshots of things that his social media company, 421 Media, has posted on Instagram in case any might hold clues about his plans or prove useful in court.

Sulkess has scoured the binder so many times over the years that she’s practically committed it to memory, able to recall the location of specific quotes within its hundreds of pages. She’s even learning Russian, so she can read the Russian press in case they write about her or Grishin. “I would do this almost as a form of therapy,” she says, flipping through the material, organized meticulously with hand-labeled tabs. She pauses at a photo of Fedoseeva, her teeth cracked and face bloody. “Part of this is to know everything. He tells you what he’s going to do—you have to pay attention.”

On another page, she spots a text message that Grishin sent to Fedoseeva years earlier during their divorce and begins to read it aloud: “When you leave the garage you will suddenly have a flat tire at the exit. You will have to get out of the car. And I will be waiting for you there, with a knife. There are no cameras at that location—I’ve checked.”

She looks up. “He’s premeditated,” she says. “He says, I want you to feel as if you are stuck in a padded room at all times,” she adds, paraphrasing his messages. “Like, You will lose your ability to leave your apartment without fearing that I’m there. It’s a psychological game.”

While Sulkess hunts for clues about Grishin, her friend Anna Fedoseeva has become a recluse in Moscow. She lives in near-constant anxiety that her ex-husband or someone who works for him could find her. Men with long-lens cameras have followed her in the past, so she keeps her blackout curtains shut. She avoids looking at Instagram, afraid of what she might find. “It’s like personal dread,” she says.

It wasn’t always that way. Fedoseeva, 39, grew up in St. Petersburg, a bright, social child with a penchant for fencing. At age 12 she lost contact with her father, a pilot in the military, after he divorced her mother. After finishing her schooling, Fedoseeva opened a Scandinavian design shop in Moscow. But her real dream was to one day work in the film industry.

In 2015, when she was 33 years old, friends set her up with a former banker named Sergey Grishin. Grishin seemed shy, but he charmed her by asking her out to a fancy restaurant and giving her a bouquet. “He was a little nervous, trying to make a good impression,” she recalls. “It was very cute.” Grishin was about 15 years older than Fedoseeva, his belly round and his gait halting because of a past injury and a disease that affected his joints.

She was just getting out of a bad relationship and found him to be attentive and considerate. He took her to Paris and told her she was beautiful, with her long blond hair and blue eyes. He offered to drive her to appointments. “He presented himself like a real man with his actions instead of just words,” she says. She fell quickly in love.

After marrying in 2017, they moved to California, where Grishin had lived on and off for about a decade. One of his mansions near Santa Barbara was famously the location for the crime film Scarface; another, where he first lived with Fedoseeva, had gardens framed by pines and cypresses and a swimming pool, sauna, and tennis court. Soon they moved to Century City in Los Angeles to renovate a penthouse apartment whose neighbors would include Friends actor Matthew Perry and billionaire Vicki Walters, widow of Walmart financier Raul Walters.  

Anna Fedoseeva and Grishin at a 2017 birthday dinner in Moscow

Courtesy Anna Fedoseeva

Fedoseeva’s new life seemed like a fairy tale in some ways. But there were a lot of unanswered questions. No one knows how Grishin became a billionaire. The Russian magazine Finans described him in 2008 as “one of the most mysterious bankers in Russia.” He was raised by his mom in a small town near Moscow after his father left them when he was young. Grishin told Fedoseeva that his mom had been controlling during his childhood and that he’d tried to please her and take care of her. But he wanted to be independent as soon as possible. He’s claimed that he started his career in the 1980s by selling homemade cookies for 10 cents apiece from a Moscow apartment. From at least 2010 to 2014, Grishin was, according to court records, the majority owner of Russia’s Rosevrobank, one of several banks around the world that was implicated in an international money-laundering scheme during those years.

Grishin would occasionally fall into dark, unpredictable moods. He was emerging from a turbulent divorce to his second wife when he met Fedoseeva, and he’d been seeking treatment at a “psychological recovery” center because of depression related to the split, according to court documents in Russia. His moodiness seemed to improve after his first date with Fedoseeva. But a few years into their relationship, Fedoseeva would notice sometimes that he was drinking heavily.

Spending all day in his mansions didn’t suit Fedoseeva, either. So close to Hollywood, she dreamed of launching her own company in the movie industry. Soon after she arrived in Los Angeles, a chance encounter with a kindred spirit finally inspired her to make the dream a reality.

At the time, Jennifer Sulkess worked as a personal assistant for actress Kate Bosworth. Like Fedoseeva, she aspired to become a producer and spent her spare time reading scripts, imagining how to bring the words on the page to life. At a bar one night, she struck up a conversation with Fedoseeva, who was new in town and was trying to make friends. Sulkess invited her to a barbecue, and the pair hit it off. “I’ve always gotten along best with people who tell it like it is,” says Sulkess, who thought Fedoseeva seemed easygoing and uninterested in status. Fedoseeva thought Sulkess seemed down to earth, despite her connections to movie stars. They decided to team up and start their own production company. One of their first projects would be a horror flick set in Mississippi about a recovering heroin addict.

As Fedoseeva devoted more time to the film in January 2018, she noticed Grishin becoming irritable. It seemed like her time with other people made him jealous. That month, perhaps curious about her whereabouts in Mississippi, he gained unauthorized access to her password-protected computer and downloaded photos taken during film production, including images of Fedoseeva and Sulkess goofing off, posing for selfies with their heads pressed together and their tongues sticking out. In one shot, they appeared to be lying down together.

Grishin soon texted Fedoseeva that he would “destroy everything that matters to you.”

After Grishin saw the photos, something snapped. He accused Fedoseeva of having an affair with Sulkess, an allegation Fedoseeva denies. “It was crazy—it was just friendship and a business relationship between us,” she says. While Fedoseeva was on set in Mississippi, Grishin demanded that she return home and sign an oath saying she had never cheated on him or been in love with a woman, and that she would vow “never to pay more time and attention to any person of any gender” than to Grishin.

Jennifer Sulkess (left) and Fedoseeva pose together in San Francisco in 2017.

Court Records

Fedoseeva wondered what had set him off—why had he fixated on her female business partner? Was he becoming impatient with her and looking for a reason to move on? Grishin had entered the relationship with Fedoseeva hoping she would give him children. But one year after their marriage, she had not gotten pregnant. “Sergei did not acquire a family, did not get the family he wanted,” one of his friends later testified in a Russian court.

Fedoseeva signed the oath, but it didn’t placate him. He filed for divorce in February 2018 without telling her, though days later he withdrew the filing. He soon texted Fedoseeva that he would “destroy everything that matters to you.” He emailed Sulkess and other employees of their production company and demanded they quit (though none of them did). He then wrote to Fedoseeva: “All your life and the lives of all your loved ones are at stake now.”

When Sulkess saw the Instagram posts, her body shook with adrenaline. It was March 2018, and she’d been on set when Fedoseeva pulled her aside to show her a strange new account called @annandjen12productions. Fedoseeva believed Grishin had created the account, with the photos he’d hacked from her iCloud account. Beside the images of her and Sulkess, he wrote captions suggesting they stole his money to produce their horror film, an allegation they deny.

“Enjoy the show,” he emailed Fedoseeva, referring to the Instagram account. She watched in horror as her passport and visa information appeared online, along with the oath he’d asked her to sign, on the social media site and on a public website called LoveAndTreason12.com.

An Instagram post by Sergey Grishin shows a photo of Fedoseeva and a film producer. The caption reads: “everyone u see.. will die soon. Just because”

Instagram

WhatsApp messages Grishin sent to Fedoseeva’s mother

 Court Records

As Sulkess scrolled through the goofy selfies she and Fedoseeva had taken, now posted for the world to see on Instagram, her confusion turned to anger. She had met Grishin only briefly in California before the film project began. “I was pissed that I had to deal with this ‘business’ man in his 50s creating fake Instagram accounts like a 13-year-old,” she recalls. And she worried what his threats might mean for the future of the movie. Fedoseeva, hoping to appease her husband, decided to tell him that she was “releasing” Sulkess from her position on the film. 

But the maneuver didn’t work. That month, Grishin sent Sulkess an ominous email stating that he was her “best friend.” Sometimes, he wrote, “friends” can be “cruel, merciless, smart devils who can wait for many years.”

Grishin’s relationship with Fedoseeva continued to splinter. In late March 2018, he refiled for divorce and began building a legal case, which he would later lose, claiming that Fedoseeva married him for his money, which she denies. He hired a team of big-shot attorneys and suggested he had other impressive connections: Days before filing for divorce, he told Fedoseeva he would reach out to then–President Donald Trump to request US citizenship. In May, Grishin sued Fedoseeva’s production company, accusing her and Sulkess of fraudulently accepting money from him for their film and refusing to pay it back, an allegation they deny.

As he attempted to shut down the women’s film company, Grishin was planning his own new venture. That month, he launched a social media company called Sergey Grishin Enterprises with the goal of buying popular Instagram accounts and amassing followers.

The new project seemed to do little to distract him from his jealousy of Fedoseeva. He texted her increasingly violent messages in Russian, saying that he owned a Glock with a 15-round clip. In another message, he envisioned killing her at a Four Seasons hotel and broadcasting the death on YouTube. He said that “at the right moment,” he would turn his social media capabilities “into a weapon…against you.”

“You tell me what pictures you like,” he later added in Russian as he detailed a plan to post more photos of her online. He noted that his company would amass 10 million followers.

Sulkess urged Fedoseeva to stop replying to her husband’s text messages, hoping he might calm down. But Fedoseeva worried her silence might make him feel rejected and enrage him further. Though the threats nauseated her, Fedoseeva decided it was in her best interest to keep the channels of communication open. Make sure to document everything, Sulkess told her.

“He threatened that he’s going to use all the followers and put in their minds everything he wants to see. It’s like an army—his army.”

As Grishin told Fedoseeva about his new business, Fedoseeva began to pry more information from him, trying to learn how he might use it against her. “I just don’t understand what the company will do?” she wrote to him. He responded bluntly: “Content first, increasing the number of subscribers, recruiting an audience. And then the hidden manipulation of people to encourage them to do certain things. But good things for them as well as the world.” He explained that he planned to hire four young hackers in Florida and open an office in Moscow, and that he wanted to use the business in part to promote himself. “Yes, I want to be the most powerful man in the world,” he wrote to her days later. He added that he hoped to expand eventually from Instagram to Twitter, noting that the platform was actively used by Trump, who’s “heard everywhere.”

“He threatened that he’s going to use all the followers and put in their minds everything he wants to see,” Fedoseeva tells me. “It’s like an army—his army.”

One of Grishin’s favorite books is The Master and Margarita, a classic Russian satirical novel by Mikhail Bulgakov about a satanic figure who arrives in Moscow disguised as a foreign professor named Woland. Dressed in a black cloak, with different colored eyes, Woland is portrayed as both manipulative and honorable, merciless and generous. He aims to publicly expose the worst qualities in people.

Grishin, in conversations with women, occasionally declared that he had three personalities: Sometimes he acted like a businessman; sometimes he was more like a little boy, gentle and innocent; and sometimes, according to court documents, he likened himself to the demonic Woland. On June 1, 2018, still pursuing a divorce from Fedoseeva, he let that third side of him come through, telling her in a text that she was like a “poisonous reptile.” “I will simply punish you by cutting you up piece by piece from the tail. Until I reach your head,” he wrote.

“I will simply punish you by cutting you up piece by piece from the tail. Until I reach your head,” Grishin wrote.

Then, a couple of days later, his mood seemed to flip again. He asked Fedoseeva to meet him at his apartment in Moscow. He said he was no longer angry and he wanted to resolve their differences. Though Sulkess begged her not to go, Fedoseeva agreed to visit him after he assured her a third party would be present.

But when she arrived on June 3, it was just the two of them. When Fedoseeva describes to me what happens next, her voice grows quiet. “Sorry, it’s difficult,” she says. “I was in shock.”

According to a complaint she later filed in a California court, once she was inside the apartment, Grishin pointed a gun with a silencer at her. He instructed her to walk to the corner of the room and strip naked, and he said he was about to kill her. As she began to remove her pants, he allegedly said he had planned everything and would make it look as if she had attacked him with a knife. She quickly reached for the gun’s silencer and wrestled it to the floor, where they began to struggle. He punched her in the face and head-butted her. Finally, she opened the door and ran to a nearby apartment, where she called the police. Medics took her to a hospital and treated her injured nose, lip, and cracked teeth.

A photo Fedoseeva took of herself after the scuffle with Grishin in 2018

Court Records

But whether they lacked a witness or were simply ambivalent, the Russian police did not pursue the case. “His aggression skyrocketed from that moment,” Sulkess recalls. When Fedoseeva got home from the hospital that night, she showered the blood off her body and then called Sulkess, terrified, before trying to sleep. Three hours after the attack, Grishin went online and posted a photo on Instagram of a woman in an elegant black dress standing on a mountain, with the caption, “Chilling on top of the world!” The next day, he texted Fedoseeva several messages, telling her that a doctor could give her a “new Hollywood smile.” “Shall I redo your hair? It’s all over the place! Make yourself a chignon!” he added in Russian.

He continued to mock her in the coming days, sending dozens of messages threatening Fedoseeva and her family. “I will come. Wait in fear,” he texted in Russian. “She is not pretty anymore. Missing some teeth,” he added the next day in a WhatsApp message to Sulkess, who also began documenting all the threatening messages she continued to receive from him as she processed her own emotions. “There’s a rage, like, Who the fuck are you that you can do this to people?” Sulkess says. “And there’s a fear as well: Is anyone ever gonna hold this person accountable?

Sulkess and Fedoseeva successfully sought temporary restraining orders from the Los Angeles Superior Court, citing the attack and the threatening messages. Grishin filed for and got one, too, claiming Fedoseeva was the aggressor in the fight and had left him with head trauma. “She messed up with the wrong man,” Grishin wrote to Fedoseeva’s mom on WhatsApp two days after they received the restraining orders; “hell hath no fury like a billionaire scorned.” (Neither Grishin nor Fedoseeva faced criminal charges related to the attack, and Grishin’s restraining order on Fedoseeva expired three months later when he failed to pursue it.)

“She messed up with the wrong man,” Grishin wrote. “Hell hath no fury like a billionaire scorned.”

Meanwhile, Grishin had become engaged to a new woman, Ekaterina Loginova, after dating her for about two weeks. In California, Loginova noticed that he was becoming “obsessed with his ex-wife and discussed daily his plans to get revenge against her,” according to letters that Loginova’s attorney later wrote to the Los Angeles police. “When Ms. Loginova pleaded with Mr. Grishin to calm down and abandon his plans for revenge, he became violent and threw a recorder at her.”

On June 15, Loginova packed a suitcase with all her clothes and returned to Moscow, saying she needed to see her physician. The next day, according to her attorney, Grishin sent her dozens of threatening video messages. In one, he stood in front of the camera with his genitals exposed, ranting about his “enemies” and calling himself “the devil.” In another, he broke a framed photograph with their image inside, shattering the glass.

In the early hours of the following morning, Grishin sent Loginova a video in which he accused her of stealing money from his safe and threatened to report her to the police—echoing allegations he’d filed around the same time against Fedoseeva and several other women, including an employee who had worked for him for 25 years. He also accused her of having a romantic relationship with Fedoseeva, whom she had never met. Grishin boarded a plane to Moscow, but Loginova refused to see him. “The devil will rise and he will render his justice,” he texted her. Loginova hardly left her home for six months after that and had trouble falling asleep at night.

Grishin and his former fiancée, Ekaterina Loginova, in April 2018

Court Records

As Grishin focused on Loginova, Fedoseeva and Sulkess hoped his harassment of them might stop. Their temporary restraining orders prohibited him from threatening or contacting them and instructed him to surrender all his weapons. But, according to court records, the day after the orders were issued, on June 20, one of Grishin’s business associates sent the two women messages on Grishin’s behalf, including a link to an Instagram video of a man wielding a large knife and chopping things.

Around this time, Fedoseeva moved into Sulkess’ apartment in Los Angeles. She started having panic attacks and felt anxious going out in public. During an outing to Universal Studios with a friend, she looked down at her phone, saw a text from Grishin, and then struggled to breathe. She told her friend she needed to be alone. Every time she or Sulkess returned home, they checked their closets and bathrooms to make sure an intruder sent by Grishin wasn’t there. “I was so scared that he was going to hurt me, hurt my mom, and hurt my friends,” Fedoseeva recalls. “He would send hundreds of messages to all of my phones, so you can never escape him. I felt like I was underwater with no air.”

Fedoseeva’s mother, back in St. Petersburg, wasn’t safe from the harassment either. Grishin suggested to her that he had access to assassins who could kill her daughter whenever he pleased. “I will make her be tortured before your eyes, she will die with time, not instantly,” he wrote to her in Russian. In July 2018, according to court documents, he sent Fedoseeva’s mother a message with an attached audio recording of himself attempting to hire a hit man, admitting he had 16 people on his list. “Lucifer will find people to assist him,” he said in Russian in the recording, after noting that he had some of the devil “living inside” him. “I want some people to disappear and some to be made examples of. And that’s that.”

He made it known that he was a man who could get what he wanted. At one point in the recorded conversation he alluded to the photographs he’d found of Fedoseeva and Sulkess. “How did you discover these?” the person he was speaking with asked him in Russian, according to a translation. “Agentes secretos,” he replied. “Did you hack into her account or what?” the other person asked him. “These were her photographs. She had them made…So, I started investigating further,” he said.

Throughout the conversation, he appeared to be talking about his connections to Russian mob bosses. The same month he sent the recording to Fedoseeva’s mother, he hinted at some of these mob relationships again: On Instagram, he posted two videos of himself on a private jet, claiming to have orchestrated what he described as one of the largest bank crimes in Russian history in the 1990s. “That’s a good story to tell to someone: how a single person like me can create a system that almost caused the collapse of the Russian banking system,” he said, his arms crossed. He added that he could reveal who else was involved in the financial crimes.

Grishin also boasted in one of the videos that he owned a social media company, and said he was sharing the videos because Russian criminals and government officials were now after him. Sulkess later wondered whether he found some measure of safety in the company’s large Instagram following, or whether he meant to imply that he could expose the Russian mob bosses online. The same month he posted the videos, he emailed his business associates at Sergey Grishin Enterprises and urged them to buy more Instagram accounts, “the best accounts possible,” with a goal of reaching 300 million followers over the next few weeks.

But it wasn’t Russian criminals he targeted on Instagram—it was Fedoseeva and Sulkess. The company’s accounts began directing followers to at least one of Grishin’s personal accounts, which featured his disparaging posts about the two women; the company’s accounts also said people who followed him would have a chance of winning millions of dollars. Grishin regularly updated Fedoseeva about his growing number of followers, according to text messages submitted in court. And despite the temporary restraining orders, he posted several images on Instagram of Fedoseeva, including one with the caption, “My wife Anna Fedoseeva and her friend Jennifer Sulkess [heart emoji] fuck u in the ass with cactus!” Another post showed a video of Fedoseeva giving a toast with some of her business associates, with a caption that said, “everyone u see.. will die soon. Just because.” 

“Regardless of his Instagram usage, Mr. Grishin is engaged in direct, almost gleeful violation of the Temporary Restraining Orders,” the women’s attorney wrote to the court. “He seems to delight in sending horrifying messages to Ms. Fedoseeva and Ms. Sulkess, day after day.”

On August 2, 2018, the court ordered Grishin to suspend all his personal Instagram accounts and other social media accounts, including some allegedly owned by Sergey Grishin Enterprises. According to court records, he left the accounts active for several days—his attorneys say he was in a hospital and couldn’t take them down immediately—and then changed the name of one account, kept it up, and posted videos boasting about violating the court’s orders. For days, he continued sharing videos on Instagram depicting knives and assault rifles. He finally shut down the account around August 22, the day he had to file a document with the court.

“Every time they step outside, they have to wonder if this is the time that Mr. Grishin will come and attack them,” the women’s attorney wrote.

By this time, Sulkess and Fedoseeva had little hope the restraining orders would save them. “Every time they step outside, they have to wonder if this is the time that Mr. Grishin will come and attack them…Every time they drive their cars, they check to see if they are being followed,” their attorney wrote to the court later. Fedoseeva had earlier found security footage that showed three men planting and retrieving surveillance devices outside a friend’s Moscow apartment where she was staying; her attorney suggested in court that the devices may have been installed as part of Grishin’s attempt to stalk Fedoseeva.

Grishin pushed back against that narrative. In a declaration to the court, he accused Fedoseeva of being the aggressor during their physical fight in Russia, though he never filed a police report about it. He did acknowledge sending inappropriate messages to her, her mother, and Sulkess over the spring and summer, including after the restraining orders were issued, but blamed his deteriorating mental health and noted that he was hospitalized in Los Angeles in late July.

“I was operating at far less than my normal mental capacity…In retrospect, I realize that during the time period in which I was unable to sleep for days at a time, I was easily moved to emotion, fear, and extreme anxiety,” he told the court. He apologized and said he could hardly remember sending the messages, “because these actions took place in what I can only describe as a ‘fog’…[M]any of them are completely nonsensical, and devoid of anything approaching a ‘threat.’” One of his business associates and friends, Tim Pinkevich, a partner at Sergey Grishin Enterprises, testified that he witnessed Grishin’s depression get so bad that he couldn’t rise from the couch. Grishin added that his medication levels had since been adjusted and he was doing better.

But a few months later, instead of leaving Fedoseeva alone, he only ramped up his attacks on her.

Fedoseeva returned to Russia for divorce proceedings in November 2018. She suspected she was being watched. The following details about her experience in Moscow are drawn from court records. While she was in the city, Grishin filed a report with the Russian police accusing her of swindling money from him during their marriage. The authorities found her at a friend’s house and threw her in jail, arguing that she might flee during the investigation otherwise.

Fedoseeva was terrified, because Grishin had previously told her that her death would come one day in prison. The moment when Sulkess learned Fedoseeva was jailed, she says, “was the scariest moment in my life.” She called another friend and begged her to stay on the phone, saying she couldn’t catch her breath.

After 10 days, Russian authorities released Fedoseeva from jail. They did not pursue charges against her and determined that her arrest had been illegal. She was awarded 35,000 rubles (about $500) in compensation for the false imprisonment, according to US court records. The Russian press reported that Grishin had bribed authorities to have her imprisoned, an allegation one of his attorneys denied as propaganda during a court hearing. No charges were ever filed against him, but Fedoseeva accused him in a US court of filing a false police report against her.

Back in California, Sulkess was having nightmares, panic attacks, and even stress-induced seizures after the jailing. She was afraid to spend too much time with friends; she worried that Grishin might target them, too.

This fear wasn’t unfounded. Sulkess’ friend Staci Witt, a makeup artist, would later be named by Fedoseeva’s legal team as a character witness. Weeks after Witt agreed in September 2019 to testify, she was hiking in Arizona when a string of bullets flew over her head, so close that she could hear them whistling. Another time, a couple of weeks before her deposition in February 2020, a man in a gold car came to Witt’s house near Los Angeles and pointed his fingers at her like a gun. She filed a police report after both incidents and started having panic attacks. Witt couldn’t prove that the two incidents were related to Grishin but wondered in her deposition whether he or his associates were involved.

Around this time, Fedoseeva and Sulkess were trying to get help from the Los Angeles Police Department. They’d filed a police report in 2018 about the restraining order violations and the harassment and later updated the detective about the Russian jailing. But in late 2018 or early 2019, the detective dropped the case. “They were not interested in credible death threats,” Sulkess told me. (The LAPD declined to comment, citing privacy concerns. A spokesperson for the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office said prosecutors reviewed the case in 2018 and found there was insufficient evidence to pursue a criminal charge. The police report had been filed before Fedoseeva’s mother discovered the audio recording of Grishin seeking a hit man; Sulkess says she later updated the detective about that piece of evidence, to no avail.)

“They decided it’s not a case,” Fedoseeva tells me over the phone, adding sarcastically, “Just maybe you can come back when he kills you.”

As the pandemic began in early 2020, Sulkess discovered that Grishin’s social media empire was still growing. She was researching Grishin on her computer when she came upon a California secretary of state filing that listed Grishin as co-owner of a company called 421.

The company’s reach was massive. It had hundreds of millions of followers, about the same as Beyoncé and Taylor Swift combined, and was making waves in the industry. In September 2019, the Wall Street Journal profiled 421 Media for a piece about “meme factories…reshaping how Instagram content is made.” The article, which did not mention Grishin, described how 421 Media staffers, many of them small-time Instagram celebrities, work behind their laptops at their Venice Beach headquarters to create viral posts interspersed with plugs for brands like Red Bull, Popeyes, Black Rifle Coffee Company, and TikTok, as well as the NRA and celebrities like Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. The company claims to reach 750 million users monthly across 125 Instagram channels, attracting advertisers including HBO Max, Paramount, Atlantic Records, MTV, Discovery Channel, and MyPillow. Gregg Colvin, the company’s co-CEO, told the Journal, “Our goal is to advertise at the highest level.”

The content created by 421 Media is mostly innocuous clickbait—lots of memes, food porn, photos of nail art, and musings about romance. But some of it is far more sinister. After a mob of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol in January 2021, Sulkess noticed that one of the company’s Instagram channels posted videos of the insurrectionists, captioning each one with the statement, “WE THE PEOPLE ARE PISSED! What are your thoughts?”

421 Media’s content is mostly innocuous clickbait—memes, food porn, photos of nail art, and musings about romance. But some of it is far more sinister.

Sulkess, weary from two years of thinking about Grishin, got a second wind when she discovered his connection to the company. Every morning for weeks she would wake up, pour some coffee, light a cigarette, and begin checking 421 Media’s Instagram accounts, making copies of posts that seemed odd or troubling to her. One of the images showed a woman’s naked torso with a shadow of a gun hovering over it and the words “Yes, boss” superimposed across her skin. Most days she worked for 8 to 12 hours, clicking through post after post in search of clues about Grishin’s next move. The memes she saved ranged from politically inflammatory to borderline pornographic to downright menacing.

“For me, it’s important to see everything so that I can stay a step ahead,” she says. “After Sergey had Anna arrested in 2018, I told myself that I would never be blindsided by Sergey or his enablers again.”

Grishin’s name, Sulkess quickly realized, wasn’t listed anywhere on the company’s website. She wondered if that was intentional. She knew that back in 2018, before 421 Media even existed, the court issuing her restraining order made it harder for Grishin to operate his previous social media company, Sergey Grishin Enterprises, by forcing him to suspend his personal Instagram accounts and some accounts owned by that company. At the time, Grishin pushed back: He assured the judge that SGE would not harm Fedoseeva or Sulkess and pledged that two of his senior executives, Dovi Frances and Roni Eshel, would henceforth control what content was posted on its Instagram channels. One of Grishin’s attorneys argued that if the court forced him to deactivate the company’s accounts, it would harm other employees who had nothing to do with the harassment. The judge didn’t buy it and ordered him to get rid of some of the company’s Instagram accounts.

A few months later, in December 2018, Grishin helped launch 421 Media, according to filings with California’s secretary of state. The new company was led by Frances and Eshel and at least one other high-ranking employee from Sergey Grishin Enterprises, and it absorbed at least two or three dozen of the same Instagram accounts.

Though Grishin’s name appears nowhere on the company’s public website, it seems he was involved behind the scenes. His previous firm, Sergey Grishin Enterprises, trademarked the name of the 421 Media company, and both businesses have the same mailing address. What’s more, the 421 Media website is hosted from the same IP address as the website that Grishin created in 2018 to publicly post photos of Fedoseeva and Sulkess and their private information. At least one of the company’s Instagram channels still maintains old posts directing people to Grishin’s now-defunct personal Instagram accounts, offering new followers a chance to win millions of dollars. In a court statement in May 2021, 421 Media was described by its chief operating officer as “one of Grishin’s companies.”

Yet it’s unclear the extent to which Grishin is involved in the company’s operations. He’s often traveling outside the United States and was reportedly pursuing new business ventures in Russia recently, including with the development firm Malltech, which is partly owned by Goldman Sachs.

Shortly after Sulkess served a deposition subpoena on a 421 Media financier and one of the company’s executives, she received a strange request from an Instagram account seeking to follow her on the platform, which would allow the account to see more of her information. It belonged to 421 Media. “Grishin’s message to Sulkess through his attempted cyberstalking is loud and clear,” her attorney wrote in a court filing in September.

As of April, 421 Media executives were in negotiations to sell their company to one of at least two possible buyers, including Maven Media, the publisher of Sports Illustrated. 421 Media did not respond to my list of questions.

Even if the company is sold, Fedoseeva and Sulkess still worry about what Grishin might do. “He is watching her every move,” their attorney wrote in the court filing, “which is a reminder that he has the means and the desire to wait for years to implement his plans.” 

After months without hearing from Grishin, Sulkess in April got the phone call from Grishin’s former assistant, Ilona Kevorkian. He’s like a walking bomb, Sulkess recalls her saying.

Born in Russia, Kevorkian, 44, had come to the United States as a teen and moved to California in 2018 looking for a change after years working in law enforcement. Through a temp agency she found an administrative job with one of Grishin’s financial services companies, SG LLC. She worked hard to prove herself as dependable, and she was eventually promoted to a role at another company, SG Acquisitions, that functioned like Grishin’s personal assistant, traveling with him and making sure his needs were met.  

At first she was glad to have the job, but there were some red flags. When she had to help Grishin move from one luxurious condo to another in Los Angeles, she says she found small holes in the walls with bullets stuck in them. She was alarmed but she tried to brush it off. Grishin denies this incident.

Sulkess in 2017 

Courtesy Jennifer Sulkess

Soon she learned about Grishin’s network of escorts, some of whom he has traveled with in the United States, Russia, Dubai, Mexico, Jamaica, and other countries. Sometimes Kevorkian helped organize their passports and other documents, noticing that most of the women, who are mentioned in court records, said they were between the ages of 19 and 25. Grishin called them his girlfriends but compensated them for their services.

In March 2020, Kevorkian flew to Jamaica on a chartered flight to assist Grishin and a 23-year-old escort named Nadezhda Liventseva, who were staying there. It was Kevorkian’s first trip with the billionaire, and she was surprised to find him often intoxicated on Dom Pérignon. His mental health seemed to be deteriorating. One morning she went to make herself coffee and saw feces smeared all over the kitchen, leading up the carpeted stairs to Grishin’s bedroom. A similar thing happened on multiple occasions. When the villa staff refused to clean up the mess, Kevorkian put on gloves to strip the beds herself and pick excrement off the floor.

Another day, a butler came to fix the broken air conditioner. Grishin, upset about what he considered to be poor service, turned to Kevorkian with a smile. I want to punish him, she recalls him saying, unsure if he was joking. Let’s tie him up and shove something in his rectum. (The butler left, unharmed.) Grishin also allegedly asked her to watch with him while Liventseva stripped and danced. “I think he was playing psychological games to see whether I would comply or if I would break down,” she says. One morning he sent back the eggs that a chef had prepared and asked her to make a fresh batch that were cooked for exactly seven minutes.

Kevorkian stayed because she wanted to build her career. And she felt sorry for Grishin. She noticed he was not taking his medication, and she tried, sometimes successfully, to get him to stop drinking so much alcohol, worried he might hurt himself. “I viewed him as a victim,” she adds.

As they spent more time together, Kevorkian heard Grishin talk about Fedoseeva and Sulkess. He said he no longer loved Fedoseeva, but Kevorkian perceived that it still pained him to talk about his ex-wife, because he appeared uneasy or even angry whenever her name came up.

Kevorkian’s job gave her a behind-the-scenes look at Grishin’s legal fight against the two women, according to court documents. She got the impression that his lawyers were trying to ruin Sulkess and Fedoseeva financially: One time, she says, she asked Grishin’s attorney Amman Khan why Grishin was spending more on a lawsuit over the marriage contract than he stood to recover, and Khan responded that the goal was to defund Sulkess and Fedoseeva so the two women couldn’t fight anymore. (Khan did not respond to a question from Mother Jones about this interaction but suggested that Kevorkian had misrepresented other conversations he’d had with her in the past.)

Kevorkian saw evidence of other menacing tactics: From late 2018 to mid 2020, according to court documents, Grishin’s associates allegedly hacked into a US phone that Sulkess gave to Fedoseeva, and copied private conversations between Fedoseeva and her attorney about the US lawsuits with Grishin, a violation of privileged attorney-client communications that would constitute a federal crime. (Grishin and his attorneys contest this allegation.)

Though Grishin told Kevorkian he’s moved on from Fedoseeva, Kevorkian worries about Fedoseeva’s safety. “Given an opportunity, if he ran into her, I think the possibility is very high that he would do something to her,” she says, echoing comments she made to a court.

Some of the escorts have reason to fear Grishin, too, she says. In November 2020, Russian media reported that he was trying to jail another one of his escorts, the 23-year-old Nadezhda Liventseva who traveled with him in Jamaica, after he accused her of stealing money from his desk drawer, according to the REN TV channel. Kevorkian does not believe these accusations are true and says Liventseva went into hiding in the Middle East.

One of Grishin’s other escorts, according to Kevorkian, is Anastasia Vashukevich (a.k.a. Nastya Rybka), a well-known model and author of The Billionaire Seduction Diary who made headlines in 2018 when she claimed to have evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 Trump election. (The evidence never materialized.) Leading up to the election, she claimed to be in a romantic relationship with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a Putin ally who was later accused by a Russian opposition leader of relaying information to the Kremlin about the Trump campaign that he’d allegedly obtained from Paul Manafort. (Deripaska called these allegations “outrageous and false.”)

In a series of texts to me, Rybka seemed reluctant to talk. She denied being Grishin’s escort and said she didn’t know him well and was not afraid of him. His Instagram account shows many recent photos of her, including a few of the two of them together.

Today, Kevorkian is concerned for Rybka as well. She showed Mother Jones a text message that Grishin wrote about Rybka and sent to Kevorkian in Russian in March, saying that Rybka was still alive but implying that perhaps it would not be the case for much longer.

In January 2021, Rybka went on Instagram and shared a “behind the scenes” promotional clip for a music video starring her. Grishin is also featured in the clip, seated at a laptop wearing dark sunglasses and no pants as a woman kneels at his feet under the desk. Later in the video, he tosses paper money on Rybka’s torso while she lies in a bathtub. “The truth of making music video [smiley face emoji],” he wrote in a caption on Instagram accompanying the clip.

“I either saw a little boy who was sitting there being silly, or it was Woland. This is beyond a horror movie.”

To Sulkess, his comment seemed like a not-so-veiled jab at her and Fedoseeva, who produced a music video together as their first project in 2018. “He does not discriminate when it comes to threatening people, but it’s mostly aimed at women and people he deems weaker than he is,” says Sulkess. “He’s got an infinite amount of money. That’s the core of it.”

After Kevorkian complained about her working conditions to human resources, SG Acquisitions shut off her access to email and locked her out of her office, firing her a couple of weeks later. (Kevorkian believes she was terminated in retaliation for her complaints; her boss Tim Pinkevich says the company let her go after learning she kept a gun in her office, which she says they discovered after locking her out of the room. She says she had the gun from her law enforcement days and she thought storing it in her office’s double-locked drawer was the safest option.)

Though she can no longer keep an eye on Grishin, Kevorkian thinks back on his threats, on all the evidence of his troubled mental state, and worries he is an imminent danger to himself and others. She says she felt morally obligated to speak out. “I’m telling you, there is no middle with this guy,” she says. “I either saw a little boy who was sitting there being silly, or it was Woland. This is beyond a horror movie.”

Fedoseeva, who is still hiding out in Moscow, hasn’t gotten a text from Grishin in years, but she remains terrified of what else he might do. In 2019, a Russian court sided with her and dismissed one of Grishin’s lawsuits, which claimed that she entered into their marriage with dishonest intentions to take his money. He is still suing her and Sulkess in the United States, where their allegations of harassment are pending as well.

Fedoseeva installed security cameras at her home and thinks about hiring a security guard, though she dwells on the risk: “There is always concern that he hires someone to get close to me to hurt me.” Sulkess worries about her friend: “She said to me the other day, ‘I feel like the light inside of me is just dying.’ She’s really strong in this, but she’s so tired.”

At the conference table in San Francisco, Sulkess and Kevorkian sit with their documents organized in front of them, discussing whether to go back to law enforcement. “I have lost confidence in [them] at this point,” Sulkess says of the police. And all the meticulous documentation, the years of her life wading through 421 Media’s memes and Grishin’s social media, has taken a toll. “The last thing I want to have happen is for this situation, because I go so deep into it, to take every part of me with it,” she says, looking up. “I wake up thinking about it. I go to sleep thinking about it. It doesn’t end.”

“I can relate,” Kevorkian adds with a sigh. “I could be sitting watching Russian cartoons, completely like a comedy, no drama, nothing suspenseful, and boom, I’m flashing back to Jamaica.”

“It’s so dark,” Sulkess agrees. “You’re constantly sitting in Sergey Grishin’s head.”

Sulkess, now living in California, daydreams sometimes about what it might be like to have her old life back, to have the time and energy to pursue her passions, to make another movie, instead of spending all her time on lawsuits. “But I also know I have to finish this,” she says. “I don’t need fucking Grishin’s dirty money. I don’t care about any of it. But I want this over.” She pauses, her eyes serious. “But like, how does it end? I don’t know.”

Few Cops We Found Using Force on George Floyd Protesters are Known to Have Faced Discipline

This story was originally published by ProPublica.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Last summer, ProPublica compiled 68 videos that appeared to show police officers using disproportionate force against protesters during the nationwide events following George Floyd’s death in police custody.

We had culled the videos from hundreds circulating on social media in the wake of the protests and highlighted the cases that seemed to clearly show officers using disproportionate force. We then reached out to dozens of law enforcement agencies whose officers are in the videos and asked some straightforward questions: Have the officers’ police departments investigated the incidents? And what consequences, if any, have the officers in the videos faced?

As time passed, we’ve been checking in with the departments to get their answers.

After a year, we wanted to give a final update on what we know: Departments have disclosed discipline for 10 officers.

A Seattle Police Department officer received a written reprimand for striking a protester with “six to eight punches over six seconds.” In Grand Rapids, Michigan, an officer shot a man in the shoulder at close range with a long-range tear gas round. He received two days without pay. In Salt Lake City, an officer received “coaching and counseling” for using a shield to push an elderly man.

Six officers were initially fired, though two got their jobs back after a review. Criminal charges are also pending against 11 officers, including some who have already faced internal discipline.

In 17 cases that we followed, the departments have decided not to discipline the officers or could not identify them.

Investigations are still ongoing in 25 of the cases. This includes a high-profile case in Buffalo, New York, where two officers pushed a man backward, causing him to hit his head on the pavement. A grand jury dismissed felony assault charges against the officers, but a decision on departmental discipline is still pending.

Finally, in 18 instances, ProPublica could not determine the disciplinary outcome — either because the department did not respond or the department said it could not share the information.

The weaving journey of accountability has played out starkly around one of the cases in Atlanta.

In May 2020, the mayor announced the firing of two officers just a day after they were involved in the violent arrest of two college students who were pulled from a car.

But the officers quickly sued to get their jobs back, citing a lack of due process. In February, Atlanta’s Civil Service Board agreed. The two officers are once again employed by the department but remain on administrative leave. The incident remains under investigation. Criminal charges have also been filed against the officers, including assault, though the district attorney who brought them has since been voted out of office.

One reason departments have declined to comment on the status of cases is that the incidents have been subject to litigation. But the back and forth on such suits can be illuminating.

Responding to a lawsuit by a protester who was hit by a Los Angeles Police Department vehicle, the city wrote that the “force used against plaintiff, if any, was caused and necessitated by the actions of plaintiff, and was reasonable and necessary for self-defense.”

In about half of the cases we reviewed, including one resulting in discipline, the officer or officers involved have not been publicly identified. Sometimes, it’s not even clear which law enforcement agency they worked for.

In Minneapolis, where Floyd’s death occurred, sparking outrage across the world, a video captured the moment in May when officers patrolling a neighborhood fired paint rounds at a woman’s home while enforcing a curfew.

A Minnesota National Guard spokesperson told ProPublica the agency was “not involved” in the incident. The Minneapolis Police Department said the incident was “not our agency.” The Minnesota State Patrol said that it reviewed the video of the incident, and that “the officer who fired the marking round was not a State Patrol trooper.” When asked which agency the officers who fired the paint round were from, the spokesperson said it was “unclear.”

With New Leaders In the US, Israel, and Iran, Nuclear Politics Remain Messy

In 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu engaged directly with US domestic politics, in an attempt to fuel American opposition to the Obama administration’s nuclear talks with Iran. The US and its allies eventually completed a deal with Iran. So when President Donald Trump abandoned the agreement in 2018, Netanyahu cheered.

Speed forward to 2021: With President Joe Biden’s State Department working to renew the nuclear pact in Vienna, advocates of diplomacy may hope that Israel’s new Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, who took office last Sunday after ending Netanyahu’s 12-year reign, would be less of an obstacle. But Bennett, an ultranationalist who positions himself to Netanyahu’s right on many issues, has also opposed the deal, a position he reiterated during his first Cabinet meeting on Sunday, during which he urged world powers to “wake up” to the danger of renewing the agreement. At least publicly, Bennett is hewing to Netanyahu’s position.

Bennett’s stance underscores the extent to which new leaders in the US, Israel, and Iran are rewriting the prospects for renewed nuclear diplomacy in real time.

In televised remarks, Bennett cited Iran’s election of a hard-line judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, after presidential elections on Friday. The United Nations accuses Raisi of participation in a so-called “death commission” that ordered the extrajudicial executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988; the US slapped him with sanctions in 2019. “Raisi’s election is, I would say, the last chance for world powers to wake up before returning to the nuclear agreement, and understand who they are doing business with,” Bennett said, according to the Associated Press.

Bennett also signaled that he will continue Netanyahu’s position toward Hamas in Gaza. Last month, rocket fire from Gaza killed 12 Israelis, while an Israeli bombing campaign reportedly killed 243 Palestinians, including 65 children, and destroyed or damaged thousands of buildings and housing units. Bennett said Sunday that Israel would retaliate against even minor attacks from the territory. “Our patience is running out” he said, citing incendiary balloons launched from Gaza in recent days. 

But the change of power in the US, Israel, and in Iran, has rejiggered international politics in a way that may boost diplomacy, according to a New York Times article, citing US and Iranian sources. “The ascension of a hard-line government in Iran may actually present the Biden administration with a brief opportunity to restore the 2015 nuclear deal with the country,” the article reports.

The logic is that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not Raisi, is the key power in Iran, and Khamenei wants to resurrect the deal to end damaging economic sanctions imposed by the United States. The Times reported that the “detailed wording of the resurrected agreement was worked out weeks ago in Vienna,” but that Khamenei had blocked completion of the deal until after the election. Now, he may allow the deal during the transition of power, setting up Iran’s moderates “to take the blame for capitulating to the West.”

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, may have been referring to this thinking in remarks Sunday on ABC’s This Week. “The ultimate decision for whether or not to go back into the deal lies with Iran’s supreme leader,” Sullivan said. “He was the same person before this election as he is after the election.”

How Merrick Garland Acts Like Donald Trump’s Lawyer

Under President Joe Biden, the Justice Department is defending many of the polices and prerogatives of former President Donald Trump. Six months after Trump left office, lawsuits on matters ranging from the Trump-Russia scandal to a rape allegation against the former president are still winding through courts, and DOJ is siding with the former president in some cases, and fighting Congress to keep Trump-era records secret in others.

The Justice Department appears to be doing this because it is run by lawyers eager to preserve executive branch power against legislators, and because Attorney General Merrick Garland wants to avoid “re-litigating” Trump-era controversies, according to aides.

DOJ, in other words, has decided to defend Trump to help Biden. But to Trump’s critics, this stance amounts to a feckless stymying of accountability for a president and aides whose conduct was unprecedented in its lawlessness.

Here is a run-down of matters where the Justice Department is, at least in part, siding with or protecting Trump.

Spying on Congress:

Lawmakers are investigating revelations that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions launched a leak investigation—continued by his successor, Bill Barr—that resulted in prosecutors obtaining records of reporters and at least two Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee. This was a probe, launched under heavy pressure by Trump, to punish officials who revealed details of his campaign’s contacts with Russians in 2016. 

But under Garland, the Justice Department has “not been forthcoming” in detailing this leak hunt, said Adam Schiff, one of the spied-upon lawmakers. According to Washington Post, Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee Chairman, has demanded to know the legal predicate for targeting members of Congress and their aides, and has asked for a timeline of DOJ’s leak probe, along with a list of all the subpoenas issued as part of it.

So far he’s been stiffed. “We have repeatedly posed basic and readily answerable questions to the department for more than a month, but have received virtually no information beyond a confirmation that the investigation is closed,” an intelligence committee aide told the Post. The House and Senate Judiciary Committees, which have jurisdiction over DOJ, are also looking into the spying issue and might fare better at unearthing information. But DOJ appears likely to resist. Schiff says he has asked Garland to launch a “wholesale review” of Trump’s politicization of DOJ. It’s unclear if Garland will do so.

E. Jean Carroll

Garland’s Justice Department has effectively sided with Trump against a woman who says Trump raped her. Department lawyers are arguing that the presidency shielded Trump from being sued for libel and slander in comments he made denying E. Jean Carroll’s claim. Carroll, a former advice columnist, alleged in 2019 that Trump forced her to have sex against her will in a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman, a department store in Manhattan, in late 1995 or early 1996. In response, Trump claimed he had never met Carroll. He also said she was “not my type,” comments that led Carol to sue him for defamation. Last year, the Justice Department took over the case from Trump’s lawyers, arguing he was acting in his official capacity as president when responded to her claims. Joe Biden joined in a chorus criticism for that move, accusing Trump of of treating the DOJ like his “own law firm.” But now, the department is protecting Biden’s ability to avoid being personally sued. The White House has distanced itself from that position, but has left the DOJ to pursue it in court.

The Russia investigation

US District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson last month accused Barr of making “disingenuous” arguments in a bid to keep secret the contents of a memo Barr received following Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s dealings with Russia. Jackson ordered release of the memo, which she said showed that Barr was bent on downplaying Trump’s culpability, and formed part of Barr’s pattern of misleading and false claims about Mueller’s findings. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) asked the Justice Department not to appeal Jackson’s ruling. “DOJ’s actions in this case… have raised doubts about DOJ’s candor when characterizing potential evidence of President Trump’s misconduct to courts,” they wrote. “To be clear, these misrepresentations preceded your confirmation as Attorney General, but the Department you now lead bears responsibility for redressing them.”

But DOJ did appeal Jackson’s ruling, arguing the memo was “pre-decisional” and thus dangerous to release publicly. DOJ also disputes Jackson’s argument that its earlier claims were misleading, blaming poor wording, not mendacity, for any “confusion.”

Trump’s taxes

House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) is still fighting in court to force the IRS to release six years of Trump’s tax returns to Congress, though the law appears to be on Neal’s side. CNN recently reported that negotiations in the case are ongoing, and that the fight may end “without the Biden administration cleanly handing over the tax returns.” The report says DOJ has not signaled what it plans. But it is clear that the department is not simply going to drop resistance and turn the records over to Congress.

Trump Hotel

In 2017, the General Services Administration, which manages most federal real estate, announced it was okay for Trump to lease a luxury hotel in Washington, despite a clause in the agreement saying no “elected official” could benefit from the agreement. That decision, made under political pressure, gave Trump a way to profit as president from foreign and domestic supplicants looking to put money in his pocket. Two House committees are still looking into the matter, fighting in court to enforce subpoenas on the contract and GSA’s decision. Under Biden, the agency has handed over some information, but has demanded that some information on the lease remain secret, due to concerns for the privacy of the Trump Organization’s proprietary interests. And the Justice Department is appealing a lower court judgment in favor of the congressional Democrats in their suit, the Washington Post noted this month.

Guns

In May, 87 former federal prosecutors asked Garland to abandon a Trump administration policy of charging gun crimes that occur in the District of Columbia in federal court. The prosecutors say that due to stiff mandatory federal penalties for gun arrests, the policy disproportionately affected Black residents. Average sentences for gun crimes are about twice as high in the federal court system, the Washington Post has reported. But DOJ has so far indicated no plan to change course.

Immigration policies

While Biden has broken with many of Trump’s draconian immigration policies, the Justice Department is quietly defending some Trump-era rules and their architects in court, the New York Times recently reported. DOJ lawyers have argued to keep in place a policy that bars immigrants with temporary protected status from gaining green cards with the support of their employer. They have also agreed to defend former members of the Trump administration, including Jeff Sessions and Stephen Miller, in lawsuits seeking damages for harm caused by the family-separation policy they advocated. This is a traditional step for DOJ to take. But Lee Gelernt, the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, told the Times that the department should reconsider due to the historically heinous conduct it is now defending. “For the Biden DOJ to choose to represent the people who did the family-separation practice is deeply troubling,” he said.

Have You Ever Seen the Adorable Pink Fairy Armadillo? No? It’s… Amazing.

If you’re in the market for a new Pride Month mascot, look no further. When the Smithsonian tweeted a photo of the pink fairy armadillo this week, I did a double-take. What a beautiful, strange thing! At only six inches, it is the world’s smallest known armadillo; that pink-hued shell is colored by blood-vessels that help the armadillo regulate its body temperature.

It’s also very, very shy, according to this WIRED profile. Not much is known about this nocturnal and subterranean creature that burrows under the dry Argentinian grasslands with “huge claws and busy little tractor bum.” Humans rarely get a glimpse. What limited scholarship exists paints a worrying picture of a creature highly susceptible to minute environmental changes (it’s very hard to keep in captivity), and it may be under threat from farming and invasive species. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lists it as endangered.

Thanks to the Smithsonian, our hard-shelled fairy friend, a sort of real-life Pokémon, is getting a well-deserved boomlet of attention:

You know an animal is special when your social media manager has to check to make sure it's real.

Meet the pink fairy armadillo. At about 6 inches long, it's the world's smallest armadillo. The shell’s color comes from blood vessels close to the surface. https://t.co/c345qKajqr pic.twitter.com/5HU40yg2TG

— Smithsonian (@smithsonian) June 14, 2021

Illustrations of the pink fairy armadillo from 1828, from a pamphlet in our archives. pic.twitter.com/EnYrTq9SAF

— Royal Institution (@Ri_Science) June 17, 2021

The Pink Fairy Armadillo

so many of you need this on your TL! https://t.co/SEc7FPljvI

— Spork (@RuncibleSpork) June 15, 2021

Biden’s Climate Plans Are Colliding With Trump’s Judiciary

This story was originally published by HuffPost and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. 

President Joe Biden’s push to combat planetary warming is running headfirst into the industry-friendly, anti-environmental legacy of his Republican predecessor.

On Tuesday, a federal judge in Louisiana struck down Biden’s early executive order that temporarily froze new oil and gas leases across federal lands and waters. The pause, which Republicans have falsely described as an all-out ban, was put in place pending the outcome of a review of the federal leasing program.

The reversal is unlikely to have any immediate impact on the US output of climate-changing emissions. But the ruling highlights perhaps the biggest obstacle to Biden’s climate agenda: a judiciary packed with conservative judges who share former President Donald Trump’s loyalty to the fossil fuel industry.

“Relying on oil and gas industry talking points to guide climate policy is a surefire way to ensure that change doesn’t happen.”

Trump appointed 226 judges during his single four-year term. While that total falls short of the 320 judges Barack Obama added during his two-term presidency, or the 322 judges George W. Bush added during his own, Trump sat 54 judges on federal appeals court benches—just one fewer than Obama and eight fewer than Bush. Those appointees formed what Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), an ally of the fossil fuel industry, called “a firewall to Joe Biden’s harmful attacks on Made-in-America energy” in a tweet Tuesday night.

Trump’s judicial picks have been widely criticized as ideologues. The ruling issued Tuesday proved Judge Terry Doughty of the US District Court for the Western District of Louisiana to be no exception.

Doughty concluded that Louisiana and other plaintiffs in the case proved they would suffer harm from the administration’s action. “Millions and possibly billions of dollars are at stake,” he wrote in his order. “Local government funding, jobs for Plaintiff State workers, and funds for the restoration of Louisiana’s Coastline are at stake.”

He did not mention what’s at stake if nations fail to rein in planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions: rising seas, worsening heat waves and drought, and emerging infectious diseases.

Doughty’s opinion relied in part on a study from Timothy Considine, a University of Wyoming economics professor, that claimed a drilling ban would result in massive job losses in states like Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado, even though huge swaths of federal leases have yet to be tapped. In the final weeks of Trump’s presidency, drillers stockpiled enough leases and permits to keep producing for years, according to an Associated Press analysis.

Internal emails published by Wyoming Public Radio and the investigative site Floodlight show that the Western Energy Alliance, a lobby group representing 200 oil and gas companies, helped guide Considine’s study, then promoted the findings to state officials. 

Considine has done consulting for the American Petroleum Institute, the US oil and gas sector’s leading trade association, as well as several coal, oil, gas and mining companies, according to his CV. On his university faculty page, Considine notes that his work has been published by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Washington, D.C., that was co-founded by the fossil fuel billionaire Charles Koch and has a long history of peddling misinformation about climate change.

“The oil and gas leasing pause is a key part of President Biden’s efforts to turn the page on the Trump administration’s disastrous climate policies and start taking public land stewardship and our climate seriously,” Kyle Herrig, president of the watchdog group Accountable.US, said in a statement Wednesday. “Relying on oil and gas industry talking points to guide climate policy is a surefire way to ensure that change doesn’t happen.”

Republicans from fossil fuel-producing states, including Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, have cited Considine’s study in attacking Biden’s leasing pause.

But independent researchers have dismissed the findings. The study “has a number of weaknesses that exaggerate the economic impacts of potential policies by between an estimated 70-85%,” Laura Zachary, an energy analyst and the co-director of Apogee Economics and Policy, an energy research organization, wrote in a rebuttal.

The Energy Department concluded in a recent analysis that the pause would likely have “no effect” until 2022, “because there is roughly a minimum eight-to-ten month delay from leasing to production in onshore areas.”

Tuesday’s ruling shows the threat that could await a climate bill even if Democrats manage to pass one.

And the impact on US emissions is likely to be negligible in the near term, said Ed Crooks, a vice chairman at the energy consultancy Wood MacKenzie. “Most of the emissions from oil & gas come from consumption, not production,” he tweeted Wednesday. “So even if US production is affected, if consumption remains the same the total effect will be very small.”

Yet even symbolic loss for the White House bodes poorly. Already, the Biden administration is struggling to win support in Congress for its $2 trillion infrastructure plan. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), long a leading climate hawk in the Senate, said last week he was “nervous” that the president’s efforts to win Republican votes on the package would risk the process getting “sucked into ‘bipartisanship’ mud where we fail on climate.”

Tuesday’s ruling shows the threat that could await a climate bill even if Democrats manage to pass one with their slim majorities in Congress.

The conservative majority on the Supreme Court proved instrumental in blocking the Obama administration’s signature climate regulation, the Clean Power Plan—a set of clean-energy subsidies and carbon limits on utilities that Republican attorneys general successfully persuaded the high court to pause in February 2016. Before the White House could challenge the ruling or adjust the rules to meet legal requirements, Trump took office and named Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general who led the lawsuit against the Clean Power Plan, as the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Tuesday’s order stems from a lawsuit that Louisiana and more than a dozen other states brought against the administration to block Biden’s executive order.

In a statement, an Interior Department official said the agency will comply with the decision and is working to finalize a report that will “include initial findings on the state of the federal conventional energy programs, as well as outline next steps and recommendations for the Department and Congress to improve stewardship of public lands and waters, create jobs, and build a just and equitable energy future.”

Ammon Bundy Announces Run for Idaho Governor

The media often describe Ammon Bundy as an “anti-government activist.” But on Saturday evening, the man Harry Reid once dismissed as a “domestic terrorist” officially announced his plans to try to become the government by running for governor of Idaho. “The establishment is losing their minds right now,” he said with a laugh after making the announcement. “I must be really really scary to these people.”

Bundy is one of 14 children of Cliven Bundy, the famously obstreperous Nevada rancher who, since 1994, has refused to pay his grazing fees to the federal government for the use of public lands. In 2014, Cliven and his family led an armed standoff in Bunkerville, Nevada, with the Bureau of Land Management when the agency attempted to impound Cliven’s cows, which graze on hundreds of acres of land near the Gold Butte National Monument. After armed militia groups flocked to the scene and hundreds of protesters intervened, the BLM was forced to retreat. Two years later, Ammon led an armed 41-day takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to protest the incarceration of two Oregon ranchers convicted of arson on public land. The occupation ended when police and FBI ambushed the occupiers, including Ammon and his brother Ryan, as they left the refuge one day to go to a meeting. Police shot and killed one of the occupiers, LaVoy Finicum, after he appeared to reach for a gun. Ryan Bundy was also shot in the shoulder but survived.

Ammon, Cliven, Ryan, and dozens of other people involved with both the Nevada and Oregon standoffs were arrested and charged with conspiracy and other federal offenses. But the Bundys were acquitted by a jury in Oregon, and their Nevada case ended in a mistrial after the judge ruled that the prosecutors had improperly withheld evidence from the defense. The failure of the federal government to hold the Bundys accountable for either episode has earned them a cult following in the West, even as environmentalists despise them for promoting attacks on public lands.

“From here on out I’m going to identify as a man, an American man, using he/him pronouns—a married man, married to a beautiful woman,” he said, making an anti-trans joke that would play well on Fox News.

Ammon is not the first Bundy to run for office. His brother Ryan ran for governor of Nevada in 2018, winning less than 2 percent of the vote. The Bundys’ political beliefs are often misunderstood, as they get lumped in with other anti-government militia types who tend to flock to them. But they are devout Mormons. They believe that the Constitution was divinely inspired and that members of the LDS church are charged with protecting it, whatever it takes, including running for office apparently.

Even so, when Ammon first submitted papers to run for office in Idaho, they were rejected because he wasn’t registered to vote in the state. The Republican Party of Idaho has also denounced him and is refusing to support him. “Republicans are the party of law and order, and Ammon Bundy is not suited to call himself an Idaho Republican let alone run for Governor of our great state,” Tom Luna, the state GOP chair, said in a statement earlier this month.

Nonetheless, Bundy seems to be gearing up for a bona fide campaign, with a fancy new website and some canned campaign videos. His campaign kickoff took place at a park in Meridian, Idaho, near Boise, where his famous father appeared and served “Bundy Beef” to the assembled crowd. His stepmother, Carol, and brother Ryan also made an appearance. Boise Freedom Tabernacle Church Pastor Diego Rodriguez played MC for the event, claiming that it had drawn more than 700 people. But video from the announcement showed a lot of empty chairs and sparse attendance. 

Bundy appeared in the bright sunlight with a stack of notebooks as props, explaining that they were the journals he kept while he was in solitary confinement in a federal prison, where he spent the better part of two years awaiting trial on charges he was never convicted of. On one of the notebooks from September 2017, he noted that he had written that “at some time that I should run for governor of Idaho.” Reflecting his religious fervor, he added, “I felt that these thoughts were not my own thoughts,” suggesting that they were a divine intervention.

Bundy joked that his running for governor had never been a surprise, given that the minute he filed the paperwork to run it was international news. So he explained that he’d come to the park to make a bigger announcement: “From here on out I’m going to identify as a man, an American man, using he/him pronouns—a married man, married to a beautiful woman,” he said, making an anti-trans joke that would play well on Fox News. “Of course I’m kidding. But, man, who would have ever thought America would have become so ridiculous.” 

His real announcement of the day was the unveiling of his plan to “keep Idaho Idaho,” which can now be found on his new campaign website.

“Idaho is losing those elements that make us love her so much,” he said. “Idaho is sliding down the path and ceasing to be the Idaho we love.” He told the crowd that he intends to bring the Republican Party back to its roots and to rid it of corruption. The specifics in the plan include eliminating income and property taxes, reclaiming federal public lands for the state, promoting “health freedom”—that is, opposing mandatory vaccines and allowing unproven cancer treatments to flourish so anyone can access them—and turning Idaho into a tax haven like Delaware, where people can hide their money from prying eyes and state tax authorities. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Bundy has been a thorn in the side of the current Idaho governor, Brad Little, who has not yet said whether he plans to run for reelection. Drawing on the cult following he developed after defeating the federal government in Oregon and Nevada, Bundy has linked arms with anti-vaccine activists and protested pandemic-related lockdowns and mask mandates.

In April 2020, he organized protests at Little’s house after a police officer arrested a woman in Meridian, near Bundy’s home, who refused to leave a playground that had been closed as a COVID prevention measure. He also organized church services in defiance of Little’s stay-at-home orders and has encouraged his supporters to back businesses that refused to shut down during the lockdown or to require masks. Bundy believes that wearing a mask is an affront to God and says that it’s against his conscience to wear one.

The aspiring governor has been arrested five times since August, when he led a group of maskless and armed protesters who pushed their way into the Idaho State Capitol Building during a special session of the legislature; they had been told that COVID social-distancing rules would not allow them to attend. The following day, he was arrested and charged with trespassing at the Capitol for sitting at the press table and refusing to leave. Officers handcuffed him and wheeled him out of the building in an office chair. (The incident apparently led the Idaho state police to buy a special jogging stroller–like cart to transport uncooperative suspects.)

Officials banned him for a year from the Capitol grounds after the incident. Nonetheless, he returned to the building the following day and was arrested again. He was scheduled to be tried on misdemeanor charges in March, but because he refused to wear a mask in the courthouse, security wouldn’t let him in the building and instead arrested him again for failing to appear. His trial on the trespassing charges is scheduled for June 28. In April, he was arrested again, twice in two hours, for violating the order banning him from the Capitol grounds. This time police wheeled him out in the special cart. 

It’s not clear how all his pending criminal cases will affect his ability to campaign.

Bundy is one of a growing number of Republicans who have lined up to run for the Idaho GOP gubernatorial nomination. He might not even be the most controversial. Also running for governor is the current lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin, who, like Bundy, has a cozy relationship with militia groups like the Three Percenters. She has been critical of Little’s public health measures to combat the pandemic, which she has suggested was not real. Last month, while Little was out of town at a Republican Governors Association meeting in Nashville, McGeachin seized the opportunity to ban mask mandates across the state. Her order stripped local public health departments of their power to set local public health rules, and Little overturned it once he got home, calling it an “abuse of power.”

The presence of Bundy and McGeachin in the race promises to make the 2022 GOP gubernatorial debate at least as lively as the one in 2014. That year, the field included Walt Bayes, a man with a chest-length beard who talked about Biblical prophecy and whose primary qualification was that he’d once gone to jail for homeschooling his 16 children. Another candidate, Harley Brown, was also one reason that the televised debate was aired with a 30-second delay, in anticipation of what Mother Jones writer Tim Murphy described as “rampant cussin.’”

As Tim wrote back then:

Brown—who wore his customary leather vest and leather hat, has the presidential seal tattooed on his shoulder, two cigars in his right breast pocket, and is missing several prominent teeth—used his closing argument to wave a signed certificate from a “Masai prophet” that confirmed that he would one day be president of the United States.

By 2014 standards, Bundy, with his neatly trimmed beard and happy Mormon family and six kids, seems downright conventional.

Juneteenth at the Border: Families Reunite With Hugs and Benedictions. Then Their Three Minutes Are Up.

After a four-hour drive from Albuquerque, the Silvas stood at the foot of the Rio Grande in El Paso, Texas, waiting for permission to walk onto a narrow wooden bridge in the shallow river. They had just been summoned by megaphone to walk through a gate in the border fencing and down a concrete path leading to the river. In this decidedly unsentimental setting, Lily Silva’s three-month-old, Angela, would get to meet her brother, Leo, who lives in Juárez, Mexico, with his father. Three minutes later, they would go their separate ways.

The Silvas were among the 200 families or so who reunited Saturday in a “Hugs Not Walls” event, during which families separated by the US–Mexico border are allowed to reunite for a few minutes. This was the Silvas first time attending the event, and they were optimistic that it would be their last.

“Hopefully by next year, [Leo] is gonna be up here. You just have to wait for the legal process to continue for this next year,” Leo’s stepfather said, “so we don’t have to see each other for just a few minutes.” Around them, children in Mexico raced to the caution tape blocking people from the Rio Bravo, as it’s known outside the U.S., and others waved at their loved ones until it was their turn. 

The event has been hosted regularly since 2016 by an El Paso nonprofit, the Border Network for Human Rights. Saturday marked the first time the event has happened since the pandemic began and it fell on Juneteenth, a holiday marking the day in 1865 that enslaved Black Americans in Galveston were informed of their freedom and the end of the Civil War. On Thursday, President Biden signed a law making Juneteenth a federal holiday.

“If laws could change hearts, then what President Joe Biden signed the other day would end our struggle. But I declare to you today, our struggle continues,” said Michael Brady, a local pastor. “On the Mexican side of the border, we stand with you in solidarity. You are our brothers. You are our sisters.”  

As Mother Jones reported in 2019, the reunions require sign-off from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the International Water Commission, local law enforcement, and federal police in Mexico. This year also brought new precautions related to the pandemic. Attendees were required to wear masks—some removed them only briefly as they embraced—and those on the U.S. side had to be vaccinated.

“It is incredible to me that we still have to come together in the middle of a river because we have governments that choose to divide us and separate us.”

The event also came days after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced plans to divert $250 million from the state’s department of criminal justice toward a border wall, even as incarcerated Texans face sweltering conditions in the summertime. 

Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, called the move political theater and criticized it for further militarizing the border, alluding to Abbott’s decision earlier this year to deploy additional state police to some Texas cities. “They are pandering to white supremacists,” Garcia said. 

Abbott, who was endorsed this month by Donald Trump for another term as governor, didn’t specify where additional fencing would be placed, but he called for public donations to help fund it. During the announcement, another state leader, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, described immigrants crossing the border as an “invasion,” mimicking language used in a manifesto written by the El Paso Walmart shooter. 

Andrea Guzman

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat representing El Paso and its suburbs, was quick to call out the statements on Twitter earlier this week. On Saturday, she challenged politicians to bear witness to future reunions so that they might “see the tragedy of that separation when each family has to go back to their own side.” 

“It is incredible to me that we still have to come together in the middle of a river because we have governments that choose to divide us and separate us,” Escobar said as drones flew overhead and police and border patrol agents surrounded the event. 

As organizers told families their three minutes were up, loved ones gave each other final hugs, kisses, and benedictions. The experience was priceless, the Silvas said, and they hoped they would never have to do it again. 

“Impeachment or Death”: Scenes From Brazil’s Massive Protests Against Bolsonaro

On the day Brazil recorded its 500,000th death from COVID-19, thousands of Brazilians took to the streets to protest the government’s disastrous response to the pandemic. This is the second round of large nationwide demonstrations in 20 days calling for the impeachment of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro and for better vaccine rollout. Protests organized by grassroots movements, political parties, and unions are scheduled to take place in at least 400 cities across the country. 

In Rio de Janeiro, it was hard to spot a single protester not wearing a mask. The crowd gathered next to a monument remembering the anti-slavery resistance leader Zumbi dos Palmares and marched along one of the main avenues of Rio’s historic Downtown neighborhood all the way to the Candelaria Church, the site of a 1993 massacre of children by the police. Mothers and fathers with their children joined the chorus of “Bolsonaro genocide.” An estimated 70,000 people attended the protest in Rio on Saturday.

A group of vaccinated octogenarians who fought against the military dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s once again hit the streets in the name of democracy. Student leaders held black and white pictures with the faces of people who disappeared during those years of repression. Bolsonaro, a former army captain who has appointed several military officers to key positions in his government, has repeatedly glorified the dictatorship and praised a notorious torturer from that era. Protesters also remembered Marielle Franco, a Black councilwoman and human rights activist from Rio de Janeiro whose murder in 2018 remains unsolved, and voiced support for former President Lula in a potential run for the presidency in 2022. 

A man holds a flag in honor of Marielle Franco, a Rio de Janeiro councilwoman murdered in 2018.

Several demonstrators carried handwritten signs blaming Bolsonaro for the half million deaths. Since the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, he has called the coronavirus a “little flu,” ignored public health measures, promoted disproven treatments, and turned down early vaccine deals. “If the people are protesting amidst a pandemic it’s because the government is more dangerous than the virus,” read one of the signs. One mother wrote: “I’m vaccinated, I don’t want to bury my children.” So far, less than 12 percent of Brazil’s population has been fully vaccinated.

Milady Bonfim de Jesus, 63, said she campaigned hard against Bolsonaro during the 2018 elections and is concerned about the president’s efforts to discredit Brazil’s electronic voting system, which she helped develop as an IT analyst at the Federal Data Processing Service (SERPRO), ahead of next year’s vote. Bonfim de Jesus has received only her first shot of the Covid-19 vaccine. “I’m scared of the virus, but I’m here,” she said. “What about the 500,000 people who died? I’ve lost friends and neighbors of 30 years. If there are other protests, I’ll be back.” 

Holding a sign with the words “impeachment or death,” the teacher Helena Hawad, 58, described feeling angry, tired, sad, and fearful. “There’s too much symbolic violence,” she said. “It’s unbearable. We can’t wait any longer. It’s too dangerous.” 

Milady Bonfim de Jesus with a sign blaming Bolsonaro for 500,000 deaths.


Woman in shackles carries sign saying: “I don’t want to become a death statistic. The shackles belong to you.”


 

“No bullet, no hunger, no COVID. Bolsonaro out!”

A crowd of protesters walk in Downtown Rio de Janeiro.

Protesters demand Bolsonaro be ousted.


“Food on the plate, vaccine in the arm, genocide in the Hague Tribunal.”

 

A Bundy-Linked Group Is Rallying Farmers in Drought-Stricken Oregon. Things Are Getting Weird.

Far-right agitators and militia groups have been gravitating to southern Oregon over the past few weeks, threatening an armed staredown with the federal government over water supplies that are seriously depleted because of a massive drought. In what could amount to the first modern climate-driven standoff in the US, some farmers in the Klamath basin are angry that the Bureau of Reclamation has shut off water to an irrigation canal that feeds 200,000 acres of farmland in southern Oregon to preserve the spawning grounds of endangered suckerfish sacred to local Native tribes.

Organizers affiliated with People’s Rights, a network created by the far-right activist Ammon Bundy, have purchased land next to the irrigation project and created a “water crisis info center” in Klamath Falls, Oregon, where they’ve been threatening to bust open the canal gates to let water flow, setting the stage for a fight over endangered species and Native America rights. The center—essentially a big tent—is supposed to be educating locals about water rights and and raising support for the cause among the locals. But at a meeting on Thursday night, People’s Rights Oregon hosted “motivational speaker” Maggie Rose McGrath, whose expertise on water rights seemed a little thin.

A conspiracy theorist and host of The Concord Show on Revolution Radio, McGrath has been supportive of armed confrontations with the government over the past six years, including an Oath Keeper–led episode at the Sugar Pine gold mine in which militia groups faced off with the Bureau of Land Management over mining claims. McGrath says she was a volunteer nurse at the standoff there. She’s been a Bundy hanger-on at least since 2016, when Ammon Bundy led the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. She says she was working as a reporter there when her “friend” LaVoy Finicum was killed by police. She also claims to have been in the courtroom when a judge released Ammon, his father Cliven, and their co-defendants from jail after they’d spent almost two years behind bars awaiting trial on conspiracy and other charges related to the armed standoff at their family ranch in Nevada. That case ended in a mistrial. 

McGrath identifies herself as a freelance journalist, but the outlets she writes for fall far outside the mainstream. One, the American Free Press, is a white-nationalist publication that used to be known as The National Spotlight, founded by the Liberty Lobby, a now-defunct group that helped spread Holocaust-denial conspiracy theories. She has written articles for American Free Press defending the January 6 insurrectionists who stormed the US Capitol, an event she has blamed on Antifa and BLM activists.

She starts some of her radio broadcasts with a song from the album “Extremist” by the late Carl Klang, an antisemitic country balladeer who, according to the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, was a staple of militia and Christian Identity movement events in the 1990s. A sampling of his lyrics: “I want to be an extremist. I want to join a militia and wear camouflage. I want be an extremist and run around and sing a rabble-rousing rebel song, and sympathize with the skinheads, who realize it was the Jews who did the Germans wrong. I want to be an extremist. I want to get the job done.”

People’s Rights

According to KTVL TV in Medford, Oregon, McGrath spent her time at the People’s Rights meeting Thursday talking about the various injustices done to her and people she knows, and then regaling the group with conspiracy theories that sounded like a new version of QAnon. KTVL reports:

She also propagated various unfounded theories of government conspiracy associated with far-right groups. She spoke at length about a certain “107,” which she claimed to be a well-known influencer in conservative circles who she alleged had the money and power to bring former US President Donald Trump back into power.

She also spoke against Oregon Gov. Kate Brown proposing that efforts to recall her from office through signature collection failed because of what she alleges to be government scheming.

She threw support behind former Oregon Rep. Mike Nearman who was expelled from his seat by a unanimous vote from the Oregon House and Senate after a video of him allowing far-right protesters into the Oregon Capitol building surfaced.

McGrath alleged that the “107” figure whose name she said she “was not at liberty” to divulge had informed her that he was working on bringing Nearman back.

The “107” influencer doesn’t seem to have influenced too many followers beyond McGrath, judging from a Google search, but in this era of QAnon insanity, perhaps it’s only a matter of time.

The Klamath Falls area was the site of an earlier armed confrontation with the government during a drought in 2001, and the current drought has raised fears of a repeat that could potentially result in bloodshed. But it’s not clear how people like McGrath are going to draw further support for the farmers, many of whom are applying for federal disaster aid rather than threatening to blow things up. They’ve realized that the water levels are so low in the lake that feeds the irrigation canals that it’s not clear opening the canal would even be enough to save them.

Scientists Can Now Turn Used Soda Bottles Into Vanilla Flavoring

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. 

Plastic bottles have been converted into vanilla flavoring using genetically engineered bacteria, the first time a valuable chemical has been brewed from waste plastic.

Upcycling plastic bottles into more lucrative materials could make the recycling process far more attractive and effective. Currently plastics lose about 95 percent of their value as a material after a single use. Encouraging better collection and use of such waste is key to tackling the global plastic pollution problem.

Researchers have already developed mutant enzymes to break down the polyethylene terephthalate polymer used for drinks bottles into its basic units, terephthalic acid (TA). Scientists have now used bugs to convert TA into vanillin.

“Using microbes to turn waste plastics, which are harmful to the environment, into an important commodity is a beautiful demonstration of green chemistry.”

Vanillin is used widely in the food and cosmetics industries and is an important bulk chemical used to make pharmaceuticals, cleaning products and herbicides. Global demand is growing and in 2018 was 37,000 metric tons, far exceeding the supply from natural vanilla beans. About 85 percent of vanillin is currently synthesized from chemicals derived from fossil fuels.

Joanna Sadler, of the University of Edinburgh, who conducted the new work, said: “This is the first example of using a biological system to upcycle plastic waste into a valuable industrial chemical and it has very exciting implications for the circular economy.”

Stephen Wallace, also of the University of Edinburgh, said: “Our work challenges the perception of plastic being a problematic waste and instead demonstrates its use as a new carbon resource from which high value products can be made.”

About 1 million plastic bottles are sold every minute around the world and just 14 percent are recycled. Currently even those bottles that are recycled can only be turned into opaque fibres for clothing or carpets.

The research, published in the journal Green Chemistry, used engineered E coli bacteria to transform TA into vanillin. The scientists warmed a microbial broth to 37 Celsius for a day, the same conditions as for brewing beer, Wallace said. This converted 79 percent of the TA into vanillin.

Next the scientists will further tweak the bacteria to increase the conversion rate further, he said: “We think we can do that pretty quickly. We have an amazing roboticised DNA assembly facility here.” They will also work on scaling up the process to convert larger amounts of plastic. Other valuable molecules could also be brewed from TA, such as some used in perfumes.

Ellis Crawford, of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said: “This is a really interesting use of microbial science to improve sustainability. Using microbes to turn waste plastics, which are harmful to the environment, into an important commodity is a beautiful demonstration of green chemistry.”

Recent research showed bottles are the second most common type of plastic pollution in the oceans, after plastic bags. In 2018, scientists accidentally created a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic bottles, and subsequent work produced a super-enzyme that eats plastic bottles even faster.

Nothing Proves The End of Bipartisanship Like Gun Control

To hear Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tell it, the hopes for Congress to pass meaningful gun legislation have simply been diminished, but are not altogether dashed. “There’s plenty of proof points to show how this issue has changed,” insists the Democrats’ leading champion in the Senate for new gun measures. Democrats, once terrified to touch gun control, have wholly embraced stricter gun laws. A few Republican senators have accepted Murphy’s invitation to discuss a potential deal to expand background checks. The Connecticut senator even clings to the idea that former President Donald Trump would have reached a compromise on the issue in 2019 if his first impeachment trial had not frayed whatever meager threads tethered him to bipartisanship.

But for all that purported shift, Murphy and his colleagues in the Senate have nothing to show. Since the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School that forged Murphy into the Senate’s leading gun control advocate, polls consistently find that a majority of Americans support background checks for every gun sale. Activists have conceded that they’d accept nearly any deal that Republicans would agree to. Yet Congress has not passed a single meaningful gun law over the past decade.

Murphy’s discussions with Republicans have taken on Sisyphean predictability. He approaches his GOP colleagues who claim to be open to compromise—“I’m not going to let perfect be the enemy of the good,” he tells me—and the ensuing weeks or months of good faith talks result in a dramatic collapse with zero action. His latest effort came to an end last Thursday when he and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) parted ways after two months of negotiations. “We’ve hit a bit of a dead end,” Murphy said. “Maybe it’s permanent, maybe it’s not.”

Some activists privately expressed relief at the latest setback. Murphy’s latest plan aimed to modestly broaden who is required to conduct a background check before selling a weapon, a far cry from the universal background checks activists have long sought. It wasn’t even close to the compromise Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) brokered in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook—a measure that had four GOP votes but couldn’t overcome a Republican filibuster. “The only room in America where you couldn’t find 60 percent of support for that legislation was the Senate floor,” says Christian Heyne, a gun violence survivor and the vice president for policy at gun control group Brady.

The endless cycle of hope followed by inaction has some gun rights groups at their wit’s end. “Something we’ve been talking about for a long time—that has consistent, high levels of support in polls—keeps getting stuck like this,” says Chelsea Parsons, the vice president of gun violence prevention at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

There have been nearly 300 mass shootings since Democrats took control of Congress earlier this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive. The pandemic raged alongside an alarming spike of shooting deaths across communities devastated by everyday gun violence. For the better part of a decade, the gun violence prevention movement has done everything it can to encourage both parties to support their issue. They’ve swayed public opinion, flipped Congress and the White House with the promise of reforms, and even endorsed GOP candidates who supported gun laws when their party would not. They’ve given up dream legislation for the reality of whatever might pass. Yet the intransigence of Republicans persists. And increasingly, the blame is falling on the Senate rules, in which any attempts to pass a gun control bill run roughshod into the filibuster.

I’ve logged hours speaking with Murphy about guns ever since the February 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida that fed the fury of grassroots activists as the midterm elections approached. Murphy laid out his predictions for the post-Parkland era on a steamy New England afternoon in July of that year, as we walked together alongside a busy road in a Connecticut suburb. “If Republicans get wiped out in 2018, guns have got to be part of their post-mortem,” Murphy told me. “They will look at the swing districts they lost and see their fealty to the NRA as a major liability.” Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Murphy assured me, was “going to have to do an assessment of the politics on this issue.”

McConnell, of course, did not. He refused to bring the universal background check bill to a vote in the Senate after it passed the House in 2019, taking only a fleeting interest in bipartisan legislation after a spree of mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio that August. Murphy, meanwhile, began negotiating yet another ill-fated background checks proposal with the Trump White House, which would have expanded background checks to gun shows and internet sales without centralizing the records of said checks.

“Having Sen. Murphy reach out and work for bipartisan solutions is ultimately a good thing,” Brady’s Heyne tells me. He points to the fact that the universal background checks bill that passed the House earlier this year, just like the one that passed two years before it, earned a handful of Republican votes. “We’ll always fight for incremental progress. What’s clear is the current way that our system works, the current way that the Senate functions, the filibuster is just making it impossible for the most basic of things through.”

Murphy thinks there are Republican votes in the Senate for a background checks bill, and he’s still in talks with other GOP senators, including Toomey and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), on a potential compromise deal. Ultimately, he’s on the side of changing the rules, calling it “ridiculous” that a bill with broad support from the voting public can’t become law. “That’s not a functioning democracy,” Murphy declares. “You’ve got to change the rules.”

Republicans Declare War on Biden’s Nonexistent Plan to Grab Farmland

Farmers, sharpen your pitchforks: President Joe Biden is coming for your land. 

At least, that is, according to Fox News, various Republican politicians, and the farm trade press. The outrage centers on an executive order Biden issued on Jan. 27, laying out the broad aim of “tackling the climate crisis at home and abroad.” As part of the effort, the order stated the goal of “conserving at least 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030.” Ever since, the battle to nix “30 for 30″—shorthand for the executive order—has emerged as a cause celebré in GOP circles. 

A group of scientists argue that to mitigate climate change and slow the extinction crisis, 30 percent of the globe’s land would have to be protected.

A Texas-based group called the American Stewards of Liberty recently launched a campaign to “fight the radical environmental agenda from taking 30 percent of America’s land by 2030,” citing a Biden-hatched scheme to transform the United States from a “nation founded on private property principles to one controlled by the administrative state.” 

On June 8, in the weekly column he publishes on his website, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts echoed these claims, urging his constituents to join his effort to thwart Biden’s “land grab,” a plan he says would “have major consequences for private property rights.” Back in April, Ricketts joined 14 other Republican governors in penning a letter to Biden declaring their objections to the president’s purported land designs. On Twitter, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott posted a copy of the missive, adding for good measure that “the President has no authority to dictate to states or citizens what to do with their private property.”

I joined Governors around the U.S. in standing against Biden's radical 30×30 plan.

The President has no authority to dictate to states or citizens what to do with their private property.

Read the full letter. pic.twitter.com/iz9HIx8Vta

— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) April 22, 2021

Biden also fielded a March letter from the conservative Congressional & Senate Western Caucuses, lambasting the supposed initiative as one that will “undermine private property rights” and “lock up more land.” Its 64 signors ranged from hard line right-wingers like Rep. Lauren Boebert (R.-Colo.) and Rep. Paul Gosar (R.-Ariz.) to relative moderates Sen. Mitt Romney (R.-Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (R.-Alaska). In May, Boebert filed a bill—co-sponsored by 22 House colleagues—to scuttle the alleged plot, which she called a “massive land grab being pursued by the Biden administration at the behest of extremist environmentalists.” 

Now, the conservative critics are correct that the “30 by 30” target emerges from environmentalist thought. Edward O. Wilson’s 2017 book Half Earth galvanized the notion, and it gained traction in 2018 when Swiss philanthropist and billionaire Hansjörg Wyss pledged $1 billion over ten years to expand global land conservation. In an influential 2019 Science paper, a group of mostly US researchers upped the momentum, arguing that to mitigate climate change and slow the extinction crisis, 30 percent of the globe’s land would have to be protected. Groups like Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, and National Geographic, all on the corporate-friendly end of the environmentalist spectrum, have endorsed 30 by 30. At the G-7 meeting meeting in Cornwall, UK, on June 13, Biden reiterated his commitment to the goal, joining the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom in pledging to support “targets to conserve or protect at least 30 percent of global land and at least 30 percent of the global ocean by 2030.” 

It’s also true that the definition of “protected” is hazy in the world of environmental policy. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, it can mean everything from a “strict nature preserve” to an “area with sustainable use of natural resources.” So a forest cut off from human contact would meet the definition; and so could a farm managed so that it doesn’t, say, overuse or foul water. 

Moreover, the Biden plan’s 30 percent target is undeniably ambitious. A 2018 Center for American Progress study found that just 12 percent US land area is currently managed as national parks, wilderness areas, permanent conservation easements, state parks, national wildlife refuges, national monuments, or other protected areas. Ricketts isn’t wrong when he writes that the plan would encompass a “land area the size of the State of Nebraska every year, each year, for the next nine years, or in other words a landmass twice the size of Texas by 2030.” 

But the Biden administration has made clear from the start that it plans to pursue the goal not through land seizure, but rather through voluntary conservation programs that would compensate landowners who participate. US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose department will help oversee the process, has tried mightily to quell the fears being whipped up in conservative circles. “There’s no intention to take something away from folks,” he told agriculture press reporters in April. “It’s really designed to figure out creative and innovative ways to encourage folks to participate in what I think many farmers and ranchers are already doing, and may very well be inclined to do more, if the right set of incentives are in place.”

On May 6, amid an ongoing swirl of conservative criticism of the executive order, the administration released a document called “America the Beautiful” intended to answer the complaints. The paper restates that 30 by 30 goal, but pledges to “honor private property rights and support the voluntary stewardship efforts of private landowners and fishers.” Driving the point home, the word “voluntary” appears 18 times in the 23-page text. And while it doesn’t spell out the definition of “protected,” the piece makes clear that working farms that adopt or already utilize (as yet undefined) conservation practices can be included under the definition. 

Now, there are legitimate concerns around big land-protection efforts. “In many instances, governments established protected areas through violent removal and policing,” Laura Martin, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Williams College and author of the forthcoming book Wild by Design: The Rise of Ecological Restoration, wrote in May. But the people being dispossessed weren’t the sort of landholders the American Stewards of Liberty or Greg Abbott have in mind. “The US military created the nation’s first national park, Yellowstone, by forcibly removing Nez Perce, Bannock, Shoshone, Crow, and Blackfeet communities from their ancestral lands.” She also noted that at a 2004 United Nations meeting, an Indigenous delegate warned that “conservation, not extractive industries, was the biggest threat to indigenous territorial and human rights.” A new Oakland Institute report documents just such a threat pending in Tanzania, where the government plans to evict over 80,000 Indigenous Maasai people from their land in an area targeted for protection. 

The Biden team overseeing the 30 for 30 effort—which includes US Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold that position—appears intent on avoiding these pitfalls. The “America the Beautiful” document acknowledges that “For well over a century, the US Government waged war against Native peoples, taking their lands, killing their sacred wildlife, implementing brutal assimilation policies, and making and breaking promises.” And it pledges to “honor tribal sovereignty and support the priorities of tribal Nations.” As Martin puts it, Biden’s 30 by 30 plan “emphasizes conservation and restoration—to be led by locally designed conservation efforts and the priorities of Tribal Nations—over the establishment of strict protected areas.” 

“I know exactly how they are going to do it… They are going to raise our taxes to the point that you can’t pay it so they can take it.”

Yet the Biden plan’s right wing critics are falsely asserting that some jackbooted land seizure is afoot. Nebraska Gov. Rickett has been been barnstorming the state to whip up opposition to it. At a Stop 30 for 30 stop in Alliance, Nebraska on June 8, Ricketts denounced the “radical climate agenda” embedded in Biden’s “land grab.” One audience member sniffed a nefarious plot, the local Star-Herald reported: “I know exactly how they are going to do it… They are going to raise our taxes to the point that you can’t pay it so they can take it.” Ricketts concurred: “Actually, I think one of the implications of this is that they will raise our taxes.” 

The spectacle of a governor shamelessly using his platform to hype up a phantom threat reminds me of my colleague Tim Murphy’s piece on the GOP’s transformation into a “party of shitposters.” Murphy writes: “Increasingly, as world-­historical crises unfurl all around them—often exacerbated by their own policies and actions—the GOP’s most ambitious officials view their primary responsibility less as public servants than as content creators, churning out an endless stream of takes, memes, stunts, and podcasts.” 

Ricketts wants in on that action. While an increasingly severe drought settles in on the Nebraska’s farmers, their climate change-denying governor diverts their gaze to Biden’s imaginary land grab. On June 15, he took to Twitter to boast that another Nebraska county had joined more than 20 others in heeding his urge to pass Stop 30×30 resolutions. 

Dixon County has unanimously passed a #Stop30x30 resolution!

More and more Nebraska counties are speaking out against President Joe Biden's 30 x 30 land grab.

Contact your county commissioners today and urge them to step up and make their voices heard. pic.twitter.com/eTCk7Iv36Y

— Gov. Pete Ricketts (@GovRicketts) June 15, 2021

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