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Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to Investigate Lung Cancer Rates Among Uranium Workers

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

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) is leading a national study examining incidences of lung cancer in uranium workers from across the country.

The Canadian Uranium Workers Study (CANUWS) will examine health data from 80,000 past and present employees at Canada’s uranium mines, mills and processing and fabrication facilities. The study, which is now underway and set to end in 2023, is the largest examination of lung cancer in Canadian uranium workers to date.

Rachel Lane, one of the lead researchers on the new study, told Canada’s National Observer she believes it will reassure workers they face less risk than before from lung cancer arising from exposure to radon, an odorless, colorless, radioactive gas. Lane is a radiation and health scientist specialist at the CNSC in Ottawa and holds a PhD in epidemiology.

“The more we know about the health effects of uranium workers, especially now at the low levels of exposure they are having, the better we are able to ensure they’re healthy and (able) to protect them.”

Rachel Lane is a radiation and health scientist specialist at the CNSC in Ottawa co-leading a study into lung cancer rates in uranium miners.

Rachel Lane

The $800-million mining and milling uranium industry employs over 2,000 people—of whom more than half are residents of northern Saskatchewan—at mine sites. The researchers plan to examine causes of death in uranium workers from 1950 on and chart their cancer data from 1970 onwards, using research from previous studies.

The new study will build on the results of two historical studies: the Eldorado study and the Ontario Uranium Mine Workers Study, both of which found elevated risks of lung cancer in uranium workers. During numerous follow-ups ending in 2015, both studies found lung cancer among miners was still more prevalent than in the general population.

Those findings were a wake-up call that prompted uranium mine safety improvements, including mechanical ventilation in mines, greater monitoring of workers, and automation of some of the workers’ tasks. Researchers believe this next health study will show the risks have been addressed.

Higher Rates of Lung Cancer in Uranium Workers

Historically, uranium mining has proven a risky occupation. Past studies have found that overall, uranium workers are generally as healthy as other Canadians. However, deaths from lung cancer associated with radiation were historically higher for uranium workers than the general male population.

The most recent follow-up to the Eldorado study assessed radon exposure and incidences of death or cancer in 17,660 uranium workers employed at Eldorado mines from 1932 to 1980. The follow-up was done in 2010. It found a “statistically significant” increased risk of lung cancer with radon exposure but “no evidence of an increase in any other cancers or other causes of death.”

The authors noted evidence from the Eldorado study on the effects of low radon exposures and exposure rates helped them understand the long-term health effects experienced by current workers. As well, the study will advance researchers’ knowledge of, and help them address the health risks to people who have naturally occurring radon within their homes.

Lane was one of the lead researchers on the study, which was carried out by the CNSC.

In 2015, a follow-up to the 2007 Ontario Uranium Miner Cohort study was done. It examined approximately 28,546 male and 413 female uranium miners who had worked at least one week in the Elliot Lake and Bancroft regions or at the Agnew Lake Mine between 1954 and 1996.

The conclusion: “Significant elevations in lung cancer mortality and incidence, as well as silicosis and injury mortality were observed in comparison with the general Canadian population.”

“Significant elevations in lung cancer mortality and incidence, as well as silicosis and injury mortality were observed in comparison with the general Canadian population.”

While the CNSC funded the study, researchers from the Occupational Cancer Research Centre in Toronto carried out the investigation.

The study now underway involves a team of health researchers led by Lane and Kristi Randhawa, a radiation and health sciences officer with the CNSC.

Anne Leis, the department head of Community Health and Epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan, will administer the project and analyze the data. Her colleague, Punam Pahwa, a professor of biostatistics, will lead the statistical analysis of the health data.

Uranium mining companies Cameco, Orano, and BWXT are co-funding the study, contributing $60,000. The CNSC is providing $125,000, while the Saskatchewan government is kicking in $60,000, and the University of Saskatchewan is contributing $90,000 of in-kind funding.

Cameco’s McArthur River uranium mine in northern Saskatchewan.

Photo by Turgan at English Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The CNSC says a working group of radiation specialists, workers, unions, Indigenous community representatives, and others will look for ways to “keep the process and results relevant and meaningful.” As well, the final report will be peer-reviewed.

Lane notes past studies of uranium miners have contributed to the scientific understanding of the effects of radon, and radiation protection measures that “significantly reduce” workplace exposures to workers.

The CNSC says radon gas produced during mining and milling is constantly monitored, controlled, and safely ventilated away from the workers. “Presently, worker exposures to radon in the uranium mining and processing industry are as low as, or only slightly greater than, public exposure from natural radon,” the agency maintains.

Continuing to study the workers’ health allows researchers to examine particular issues in more detail, find answers to questions left from previous studies, and conduct further follow-up with miners throughout their lifespan.

The new study will address, among other things, the risk of low radon exposure among workers since radiation protection measures were put in place. Lane says researchers hope to see fewer incidences of lung cancer.

Uranium processing and fabrication workers will also be included in a study for the first time. “Their exposures are considerably lower, but they’re still an important group to study,” Lane said.

Concerns Over Possible Bias

While former employees and industry watchers applaud efforts to study the health of uranium workers, some are skeptical about the ability of CNSC to produce an unbiased report.

Jamie Kneen, communications and outreach coordinator at Mining Watch Canada, says it’s important to understand the longer-term impacts of radon on the miners. But he cautions that the peer review and oversight of the study must be carefully examined because it is being led by CNSC.

Kneen contends that for years, the CNSC has served both as a regulator and promoter of the nuclear industry. “Their tendency has been to extend license periods and to give operators, whether it’s in the uranium industry or the nuclear power industry, more space, more time in terms of licensing and more leeway rather than the kind of tight supervision and oversight that the public probably would expect.”

Therefore, it’s a question of scrutinizing who’s doing the work and reviewing the study to ensure that it really is independent, according to Kneen. He notes that’s a difficult task given that the methodology around radiation is intricate and that not many people can decipher the technical details.

“It is concerning that health standards are set by physicists and industries, based on financial and technological convenience, rather than by those educated in and committed to public health and safety.”

“So there’s a lot of potential for not necessarily deliberate manipulation, but for error to creep in and biases to creep in.”

Rod Gardiner, a former general foreman at the now-defunct Cluff Lake Mine in Saskatchewan, expresses his own concerns about the industry. Gardiner was at the mine for 33 years, working his way up to general foreman and acting mine manager.

He alleges management at Cluff Lake, which was owned by the multinational mining corporation Orano Group, consistently boasted that working in the mine was as safe as working in a supermarket and putting prices on soup cans. “That’s what they used to say, the company.”

He hopes a new study might answer questions about workers’ health.

But others aren’t sure whether results will be trustworthy, primarily because the CNSC is partially funding and leading the study.

The CNSC’s work has been subject to just those kinds of complaints in the past.

Writing in the journal Canadian Family Physician in 2013, Dale Dewar and two other authors expressed concern over the CNSC’s ability to act independently of government and industry. The authors noted the former Conservative federal government fired the commission’s CEO when she applied safety guidelines to shut down the Chalk River reactor in Ontario.

The authors observed: “It is concerning that health standards are set by physicists and industries, based on financial and technological convenience, rather than by those educated in and committed to public health and safety.”

Dewar, a longtime general physician in northern Saskatchewan, recently told Canada’s National Observer: “They want to show that it doesn’t cause cancer. I think they want to find that result.”

Dewar expressed surprise that the CNSC has opted for a focused study when northerners have been asking for decades for a baseline health study to determine such things as whether or not there have been increases in autoimmune diseases or cancers that couldn’t be explained by diet, for example.

“I think not only is it virtually a sin that they’ve never done this, but I think it’s a really huge missed opportunity because if they had a study done like this, they would have researchers around the world trying to get information out of it.”

Lane dismisses the notion the CNSC study is too narrowly focused, arguing that all causes of death are examined. Firstly, she says researchers compare workers to the general population of Canada to see if they have any increased rate of diseases. Previously, the only radiation-related disease that showed an increase was lung cancer, Lane says.

“All other cancers and all other causes of death were not in excess compared to the general population.”

Lane notes in the last 20 years, researchers have looked for correlations between radon and leukemia, heart disease, and other illnesses, but haven’t seen any strong relationships. “We really only have seen strong evidence of a relationship between radon and lung cancer at high doses.”

Compensation for Uranium Workers

Another, less discussed issue is compensation for uranium miners. In the United States, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) administered by the Department of Justice has awarded over US$2.4 billion in benefits to more than 37,000 claimants since its introduction in 1990.

Among those qualifying for the benefits are uranium miners, millers and ore transporters who worked between 1942 and 1971, and who developed one of the types of diseases specified in the statute. Those include lung cancer and a number of respiratory diseases. The qualifying miners receive $100,000 each.

In Canada, no such compensation program exists.

Asked whether the current CNSC study might help open the way to compensation for uranium miners, Lane said that wasn’t anything she could address. “Right now our workers are healthy and the current knowledge of the health effects of radiation and the radiation protection measures are in place to adequately protect the workers.”

Candyce Paul, who lives on the English River First Nation in Saskatchewan, is a spokesperson for the Committee for Future Generations, a group that believes uranium workers should receive compensation.

Candyce Paul

Candyce Paul, a spokesperson for the Committee for Future Generations, an anti-nuclear group in northern Saskatchewan, believes uranium workers who got cancer should receive compensation.

Paul lives on the English River First Nation in northern Saskatchewan and protested the proposal for a nuclear waste repository in the region. “Most of them (uranium miners) get exposed to this or that.

“And there’s never been any compensation for anybody.”

The Justice Department Won’t Investigate COVID Deaths in New York Nursing Homes

Over the last six months, government officials and journalists have surfaced damning information that suggests New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration attempted to diminish the true pandemic death toll in the state’s nursing homes. State attorney general data revealed that New York’s public tally of nursing home deaths may have undercounted the fatalities by up to 50 percent, and the New York Times uncovered efforts by Cuomo’s aides to stop health officials from sharing that data with state lawmakers and the public. These moves coincided with a time when Cuomo was trying to ink a multi-million-dollar deal for a book about his handling of the COVID crisis, capitalizing on the image he’d cultivated as a hard-charging hero of pandemic leadership when New York City was the COVID epicenter in the spring of 2020.

On Friday, the Justice Department disclosed that it has declined to further investigate what happened in New York.

In letters sent to several lawmakers, DOJ said that it would not open a civil investigation into New York’s handling of the pandemic in nursing homes. In a letter to Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), who plans to challenge the three-term embattled incumbent in New York’s gubernatorial race in 2022, the department said that it had requested information from the state of New York last summer. “We have reviewed the information provided,” wrote deputy assistant attorney general Joe Gaeta. “Based on that review we have decided not to open a [Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act] investigation of any public nursing facility at this time.”

Meanwhile, New York’s handling of death toll data at nursing homes is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the US attorney’s office in Brooklyn and by the FBI. Cuomo also faces an unrelated state inquiry over allegations of sexual harassment, after nearly a dozen women came forward with accusations against him this spring.

The DOJ also declined to open investigations into the pandemic response in nursing homes in Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Each of these three states had issued policies at the height of the first COVID wave in the spring of 2020 that required nursing homes to admit COVID-19 patients, despite the lack of adequate testing and the high risk for severe COVID complications or death among nursing homes’ elderly populations. These “must-admit” orders appeared as nursing homes became some of the hardest-hit locations. As my colleague Molly Schwartz explained in February:

When the coronavirus first appeared in the US, nursing homes were an epicenter of infection and have continued to have the highest mortality and infection rates of any population. Infections rates in nursing homes surged to a high in late November following Thanksgiving travel, and the death counts continue to rise, peaking at 7,004 weekly deaths in nursing homes alone the week of January 14. As of February 2, 153,159 of the 443,751 Americans who have died from COVID-19—a whopping 35 percent—are residents of long-term care facilities; they account for less than 1 percent of the US population. 

Last summer, the Justice Department—then under Trump administration leadership—requested more information from these three states, as well as New Jersey, to assess whether their “must-admit” policies may have caused pandemic deaths in nursing homes. On the basis of this information, the DOJ had opened an investigation in New Jersey. But Friday’s announcement from the department effectively ended the chances of a federal probe in the other three states.

The announcement provoked fierce criticism from several Republican lawmakers for the department’s decision not to investigate the “must-admit” orders that may have spurred COVID outbreaks in care facilities. “Where is the justice for nursing home victims and their grieving families?” said Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La), ranking member of the House Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, in a statement. “These deadly orders contradicted the CDC’s guidance, and needlessly endangered the most vulnerable among us to the deadly COVID-19 virus.”

A Conservative Radio Host Mocked the Vaccine. Now He’s Hospitalized With COVID.

The family of a conservative radio host Phil Valentine, who is now hospitalized in a Tennessee critical care unit with COVID-19, issued a statement on his behalf Friday, expressing his regret over the vaccine skepticism that he has shared with his listeners over many months.

They ended their statement with an all-caps plea to Valentine’s listeners: “PLEASE GO GET VACCINATED!”

Valentine is the most recent in a string of conservative media personalities to embrace the COVID vaccine after months of public skepticism. Last week, Fox News host Sean Hannity urged his viewers to take COVID seriously and said that it “absolutely makes sense for many Americans to get vaccinated. I believe in science. I believe in the science of vaccination.” Several other Fox hosts made similar statements over the course of the week. 

Valentine, who is 61-years-old, has hosted his popular conservative talk radio show on a Nashville radio station for the last 25 years. About 39 percent of Tennesseans have received a COVID vaccine, yet Valentine has in recent months repeatedly promoted vaccine hesitancy both on his show and on his blog. On the air, Valentine performed “Vaxman”—a parody of the Beatles song “Taxman” that was reconfigured to mock the Covid vaccines: “Yeah, I’m the Vaxman,” the chorus goes. “If you don’t like me coming round, be thankful I don’t hold you down.”

Here’s “Vaxman”, the song parody of the Beatles “Taxman” conservative radio host Phil Valentine made mocking the vaccine just a few days ago.

He is now reportedly hospitalized with COVID-19. pic.twitter.com/3b5rzVdzqb

— The Tennessee Holler (@TheTNHoller) July 21, 2021

In a December 2020 blog post, Valentine wrote that he was not an anti-vaxxer but was instead “using common sense” in opting not to get vaccinated. He added:

What are my odds of getting COVID? They’re pretty low. What are my odds of dying from COVID if I do get it? Probably way less than one percent. I’m doing what everyone should do and that’s my own personal health risk assessment. If you have underlying health issues you probably need to get the vaccine. If you’re not at high risk of dying from COVID then you’re probably safer not getting it. That evokes shrieks of horror from many, but it’s true. 

CNN reported that this spring that Valentine compared hospital workers asked to indicate their COVID vaccine status on their ID badges to Jews who were forced to identify themselves by wearing yellow stars in Nazi Germany. 

In their Friday statement, Valentine’s family said that he “regrets not being more vehemently ‘Pro-Vaccine’, and looks forward to being able to more vigorously advocate that position as soon as he is back on the air, which we all hope will be soon.”

They added that Valentine has COVIDpneumonia, is breathing with assistance, but is not on a ventilator. 

Tennessee is among a number of Southern states where vaccine misinformation has led to low rates of vaccination and the rapid recent spread of the highly infectious Delta variant. Health officials in Tennessee have said that the vast majority of COVID deaths in the state are among the unvaccinated.

Earlier this month, the Tennessee government fired the state’s top vaccination official Dr. Michelle Fiscus. Though the reasons for her termination were not made clear, Fiscus said it was likely because of her efforts to vaccinate young people ages 12 to 15 after the CDC declared the COVID vaccine safe for this age group. Republican lawmakers in the state had publicly criticized Fiscus’ actions during legislative hearings last month. 

Another Dangerous “Heat Dome” Is About to Descend on the US

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

The most extensive heatwave of a scorching summer is set to descend upon much of America in the coming week, further roasting areas already gripped by severe drought, plunging reservoirs, and wildfires.

A massive “heat dome” of excessive heat will settle across the heart of the contiguous US from Monday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast, bringing elevated temperatures to the Great Plains, the Great Lakes, the northern reaches of the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific north-west and California.

Places used to more mild summers are set for punishing heat, with temperatures expected to breach 100F (37C) in the Dakotas and Montana, a state in which the city of Billings has already experienced 12 days above 95F (35C) this month. Areas of states including Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma may get “sweltering” temperatures reaching 110F (43C), NOAA said, while cities such as Des Moines, Minneapolis and Chicago will get significantly above-average heat.

The latest, but most expansive, in a parade of heatwaves to sweep the US is likely to bring thunderstorms and lightning to some areas, as well as worsen drought conditions ranked as “severe” or “exceptional” that now cover two-thirds of the US west.

Climate scientists have said the barrage of heatwaves over the past month, which have parched farms, caused roads to buckle and resulted in the obliteration of long-standing temperature records, are being fueled by predicted human-caused climate change—but admit to being surprised at the ferocity of the onslaught.

Heat dome over North America, showing high temperatures predicted across the continent. Photograph: NOAA

“It’s been a severe and dangerous summer, some of the heatwaves have been devastatingly hot,” said Michael Wehner, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “We certainly expected these types of temperatures as global warming continues but I don’t think anyone anticipated they would be so hot right now. I don’t think we could’ve expected so many heatwaves in the same general region in one summer.”

The most extraordinary of the recent heatwaves occurred in the Pacific north-west in June where the normally mild region was bathed in heat that broke temperature records by more than 10F (5.5C). The heat, which caused hundreds of people to die in cities including Seattle and Portland, where it reached 116F (46C), has caused several scientists to question their previous estimates of how the climate crisis will reshape heatwave severity.

“You expect hotter heatwaves with climate change but the estimates may have been overly conservative,” Wehner said. “With the Pacific north-west heatwave you’d conclude the event would be almost impossible without climate change but in a straightforward statistical analysis from before this summer— you’d also conclude it would be impossible with climate change, too. That is problematic because the event happened.”

Wehner said the ongoing heatwaves should prompt governments and businesses to better prepare for the health impacts of high temperatures, which range from heatstroke to breathing difficulties caused by smoke emitted from increasingly large wildfires.

“The good news is that heatwaves are now on people’s radars a bit more,” he said. “But these sort of events are completely unprecedented, you expect records to be beaten by tenths of a degree, not 5F or more.

“It’s a teachable moment in many ways for the public that climate change is here and now and dangerous. It isn’t our grandchildren’s problem, it’s our problem. But it’s been a teachable moment for climate scientists too.”

“Not Necessary”: The Biden Administration Just Canceled More Border Wall Contracts

On Friday, the Biden administration canceled two border wall contracts along 31 miles of the Rio Grande in South Texas—continuing the process it began this spring of dismantling one of the Trump administration’s signature initiatives.

The two contracts had previously been funded in 2020, but Biden’s Department of Homeland Security announced on Friday that they are “not necessary to address any life, safety, environmental, or other remediation requirements.” 

The Trump administration had planned to spend about $15 billion to construct a border wall along the Southwest border of the US in an effort to crack down on crossings by undocumented immigrants, whom they deemed a threat to American security. Immigration and environmental activists alike blasted the wall plan—the former for imperiling immigrants fleeing dangerous or difficult circumstances, and the latter because wall construction threatened to disrupt natural habitats and endanger more than 100 threatened animal species who roam at the border. Nor do some portions of the wall constructed under Trump appear to do much to prevent border crossings, as they are easily scaled with a ladder.   

The contracts canceled on Friday were the first to be terminated under a plan announced by the Department of Homeland Security in June to divert the billions of dollars allocated for the border wall to other priorities. The Department is legally required to use the funds—which were already appropriated by Congress—for projects on the border. So DHS announced last month that the money would be used to address environmental damage at the border, including soil erosion in Southern California and structural concerns on levees meant to prevent flooding near the Rio Grande.

On his first day in office in January, Biden paused construction of the wall and announced a review of all the funds that had been appropriated for construction, calling the project “a waste of money that diverts attention from genuine threats to our homeland security.”

About $10 billion of the funds for Trump’s border wall had been set to come from the Department of Defense, diverted from military projects. The Biden administration terminated the remainder of these contracts in April. DHS said in its Friday announcement that it would continue to review the paused border projects that had been set to come from Homeland Security funds. It also urged the administration “to call on Congress to cancel remaining border wall funding and instead fund smarter border security measures.”

On the Heels of Europe’s Devastating Floods, Scientists Warn More Is Yet to Come

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

Scientists warn the catastrophic floods that devastated western Europe last week are a glimpse into the future for the region, as climate change fuels more intense, slower-moving storm systems that can hold vast amounts of precipitation.

According to a new study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, similar slow-moving, low-pressure storms could become 14 times more frequent in Europe over the next century. To date, such weather patterns have been relatively uncommon in the region, but researchers, using detailed climate model simulations, found that storms in the coming decades will have higher peak intensities, longer durations, and will occur more frequently. Slower-moving storms formed in warmer atmospheric temperatures also means more water accumulation—for every 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit of warming, the atmosphere can hold 7 percent more moisture—increasing the risk of flash flooding.

“This study suggests that changes to extreme storms will be significant and cause an increase in the frequency of devastating flooding across Europe,” Hayley Fowler, co-author of the study and a hydroclimatologist at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, said in a press release.

It’s a wake-up call, Fowler said, to improve emergency warning and management and to make infrastructure more resilient to the effects of climate change.

Two months worth of rain fell in just 24 hours in parts of Germany late last week, causing damages to bridges and roads, rivers to overflow, hillsides to collapse, and homes and cars to be swept away. More than 1,000 rescue operations have been carried out, nearly 200 people have died, 700 have been injured, and many others remain missing as of Monday morning. Parts of the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and the UK were also affected by the flash flooding.

The new research by Fowler and her colleagues echoes a separate study published in January in the Journal of Climate that found annual and extreme precipitation will increase in most regions of Europe over the next century. 

“Governments across the world have been too slow in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and global warming continues apace,” Fowler said.

As climate impacts worsen around the world—from the floods in Europe to record-breaking wildfires in the American West to severe drought in Madagascar—several countries are acting ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference this November. The European Union and China, two of the world’s biggest economies, recently announced sweeping plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The commitment includes for the EU a globally first-of-its-kind tax on imports from high emitting countries. Environmentalists, however, say it’s still not enough to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change released a report in March showing that countries have to redouble efforts and submit more ambitious climate action plans in 2021 if the world is going to meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting increases in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

As of March, the world’s collective commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions put us on the path to reducing emissions by less than 1 percent by 2030, compared to 2010 levels. But according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, emissions reductions ranges should really be around 45 percent.

Cleveland’s Baseball Team Changes Name to Guardians

Meet the new guardians of the Great Lakes.

The Cleveland Indians announced on Friday they would become the Cleveland Guardians following the 2021 baseball season, after Native American groups decried their name and logo as racist.  

The news was announced in a video narrated by none other than (California native) Tom Hanks.

Together, we are all… pic.twitter.com/R5FnT4kv1I

— Cleveland Indians (@Indians) July 23, 2021

The new name refers to the famous Hope Memorial Bridge over the Cuyahoga River just outside the ballpark, which features eight giant figures representing the Guardians of Traffic.

A fresh look from the 216. pic.twitter.com/0W8VTtZ7b0

— Cleveland Indians (@Indians) July 23, 2021

The Indians announced they were considering a name-change last summer during the public reckoning over racism following the murder of George Floyd.

“Hearing firsthand the stories and experiences of Native American people, we gained a deep understanding of how tribal communities feel about the team name and the detrimental effects it has on them,” team owner Paul Dolan said in a statement in December. “We also spoke to local civic leaders who represent diverse populations in our city and who highlighted the negative impact our team name has on our broader population and on under-represented groups across our community.”

Cleveland was famous as the first team in the American League to integrate. In 1947, owner Bill Veeck hired Larry Doby, a Black player, only a few months after Jackie Robinson broke through with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The next year, Cleveland won the league with Doby and the legendary Black pitcher Satchel Paige—who made his Major League debut at age 42 with Cleveland in 1948 after spending his career in the Negro Leagues. Cleveland still has not won a World Series since then.

Some Republicans immediately tried to turn this name change into their latest front in the culture wars, with Sen. Ted Cruz tweeting “Why does MLB hate Indians,” seemingly missing the entire point of the name change, and then ludicrously suggesting that Boston would be forced to abandon being called the Celtics.

The Washington Football Team has yet to choose a new name.

A Running List of the Petty Fascism at the Olympics

As the pandemic continues to wreak havoc around the globe, and the cost of the Tokyo Olympics skyrockets, the International Olympic Committee and its satellite arms busied themselves by cracking down on dress codes, recreational drug use, and peaceful protests—you know, the important stuff.

We’re keeping track of its inane policing:

  • Namibia’s National Olympic Committee disqualifies 18-year-old athletes Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi from running the women’s 400-meter race due to testosterone levels that the committee said were too high to let them compete. (In sex-testing athletes, “people are overdetermining testosterone’s effects in ways that don’t fit with what we know scientifically,” Stanford bioethicist Katrina Karkazis told us in 2016.)
  • Sha’Carri Richardson, a US favorite for the women’s 100-meter sprint, is caught with pot in her system and suspended for 30 days—meaning she won’t be able to compete in the event in Tokyo. Writes Mother Jones‘ Nathalie Baptiste: “Did smoking a little weed give her any kind of unfair advantage? No. Did she break the law? No. Richardson smoked in Oregon, where adults are legally allowed to partake. Simply put, it’s an archaic rule and, of course, it impacts vulnerable women.”
  • Soul Cap, a company that makes headwear specifically for more voluminous hair types, is rejected by the International Swimming Federation (FINA), meaning Black swimmers can’t use its caps at the Olympics. (FINA later said it is “reviewing” its decision.)
  • The beach handball players on Norway’s women’s team are all fined 150 euros for wearing tiny shorts instead of the required bikini bottoms “with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg.” Why doesn’t the men’s team have to wear skimpy bottoms? A spokeswoman for the International Handball Federation said that she did not know the reason but was “looking into it.”

This is sexist AF. Stop controlling women's clothing & bodies.

Norway’s women’s beach handball team was fined by the European Handball Federation on Monday, after players wore shorts (pictured left), instead of the required bikini bottoms, during a game.https://t.co/lT5Ngso6Mm pic.twitter.com/WV8bCqP8Lm

— Minh Ngo (@minhtngo) July 21, 2021

  • Spanish synchronized swimmer Ona Carbonell’s son Kai, who is still breastfeeding, is forbidden from staying in Tokyo’s Olympic Village with his mother (and source of critical sustenance) during the Games.

Spanish swimmer Ona Carbonell chose to not bring her breastfeeding son and husband to the #Tokyo2020 Olympics as she felt the conditions set by the Japanese government were too restrictive https://t.co/3kE0lYHUyg pic.twitter.com/XYvWjBuNUq

— Reuters (@Reuters) July 22, 2021

  • The International Olympic Committee and Tokyo organizers ban their social media teams from posting photos of any athletes taking a knee in protest before an event, even though the IOC recently relaxed its rules to allow acts of protest inside  Olympic venues—except if it is targeted, disruptive, or happens on the podium.

Top image credit: Mother Jones illustration; Joel Marklund/Bildbyran via ZUMA Press; Patrick Smith/Getty Images; Clive Rose/Getty Images

Mississippi Urges Supreme Court to Overturn Roe v. Wade

On Thursday, the state of Mississippi filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to strike down Roe v. Wade—the landmark decision establishing a constitutional right to an abortion—and uphold the state’s ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The Court will hear the case in the fall. And it escalates a string of legal challenges reaching the Court as states move to restrict abortion access.

“This Court should overrule Roe and Casey,” said the brief, referring to the 1973 ruling and another case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, from 1992 which upheld but “reined in” Roe. “Roe and Casey are egregiously wrong. They have proven hopelessly unworkable. They have inflicted profound damage. Decades of progress have overtaken them. Reliance interests do not support retaining them. And nothing but a full break from those cases can stem the harms they have caused.”

When Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch urged the Court to hear the case last June, after the state’s strict abortion ban was blocked by the lower courts, she said “the questions presented in this petition do not require the Court to overturn Roe or Casey.” (Mississippi’s law was challenged by the sole remaining abortion provider in the state.)

But Mississippi has now taken a more radical position after Amy Coney Barrett, whose record on abortion rights swings hard right, replaced Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a staunch pro-choice advocate, on the court, shifting a 5 to 4 conservative court to a 6 to 3 one.

While the Court has achieved many long-standing goals of the conservative movement—gutting voting rights protections, overturning restrictions on money in politics, weakening the power of unions—overturning Roe has always been at the top of the right’s wish list.

This was exactly the situation Democrats feared when Barrett was confirmed to the court. 

As a University of Notre Dame Law School professor, Barrett signed an ad that stated, “It’s time to put an end to the barbaric legacy of Roe v. Wade.” During her confirmation hearing, Barrett said she did not believe Roe was a “super-precedent” that the court could not overturn, unlike decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education. “That doesn’t mean that Roe should be overruled, but descriptively it does mean that it’s not a case that everyone has accepted,” Barrett said. Leading pro-choice activists, including RBG before she was nominated to the bench, have long warned that Roe is potentially a weak legal precedent and didn’t go far enough to protect abortion rights.

Barrett was confirmed just eight days before the 2020 election, when 65 million people had already voted, even though Mitch McConnell blocked the nomination of Merrick Garland eight months before the 2016 election, who is now Attorney General under Biden.

Meanwhile, the circumstances surrounding the confirmation of another justice nominated by President Trump, Brett Kavanaugh, continue to attract scrutiny. The New York Times reported on Thursday that the FBI received 4,500 tips about sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh during a background check but forwarded the most “relevant” ones to the Trump White House, which suggests that serious accusations against Kavanaugh were never properly investigated before he was narrowly confirmed to the court.

Civil Rights Groups to Biden: Abolish Filibuster to Protect Voting Rights

In a CNN town hall on Wednesday, President Joe Biden called the wave of new laws restricting voting access “Jim Crow on steroids.” Despite that, he made clear he was not in favor of abolishing the filibuster—a relic of Jim Crow—in order to pass federal legislation that would counter GOP voter suppression efforts.

Biden said in Cincinnati it would “throw the entire Congress into chaos and nothing will get done” if Senate Democrats scrapped the 60-vote requirement to pass voting rights bills. “I want to make sure we bring along not just all the Democrats; we bring along Republicans, who I know know better.  They know better than this.”

That stance doesn’t sit well with voting rights advocates, who point out that every Senate Republican voted last month to block debate on the For the People Act, the Democrats’ sweeping democracy reform bill. And only one GOP senator, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, supports the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would require states with a history of discrimination to once again approve their voting changes with the federal government.

“While we fully support the ideal of bipartisan cooperation on voting rights, the partisan political agenda of some in the Senate cannot be allowed to block passage of legislation that has broad bipartisan backing,” 150 civil rights groups led by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights wrote to Biden in a strongly worded letter on Thursday. “And we certainly cannot allow an arcane Senate procedural rule to derail efforts that a majority of Americans support.”

While Biden called passage of federal legislation to protect voting rights a “national imperative” in a much-touted speech in Philadelphia on July 13, he never mentioned the filibuster or laid out a plan for how he planned to overcome GOP obstruction in the Senate.

This has led to asymmetric warfare between the parties: Republicans in state legislatures have passed an unprecedented number of new laws this year designed to make it harder for Democrats to cast ballots on simple majority party-line votes (30 new laws passed in 18 states so far this year), while Senate Democrats in Washington are insisting on support from 10 Republicans in order to pass federal legislation that would stop it, essentially giving Mitch McConnell veto power over protecting voting rights.

According to the New York Times, White House officials have told voting rights advocates they believe Democrats can “out-organize voter suppression,” which has similarly infuriated civil rights groups.

“Only federal legislation can ensure that our elections are safe and free and fully protect the franchise,” said the letter from the Leadership Conference. “While we support the notion of a broad-based coalition of advocates, we cannot and should not have to organize our way out of the attacks and restrictions on voting that lawmakers are passing and proposing at the state level.”

Melanie Campbell-@coalitionbuildr and @AriBerman explain the For the People Act vs. the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and why we need both. #TheReidOut #reiders pic.twitter.com/61lcy3lvLS

— The ReidOut (@thereidout) July 22, 2021

Indeed, while Biden said in the CNN town hall “the American public, you can’t stop them from voting,” pointing to record turnout in 2020, many of the new restrictions on voting passed by Republicans this year roll back the voting methods that led to increased turnout in the last election, by instituting measures like prohibiting election officials from sending out mail ballot requests forms, cutting the number of mail ballot drop boxes, repealing Election Day registration, and cutting early voting days.

Moreover, some states, like Georgia, have passed new laws that could lead to GOP election officials overturning election results, a form of election subversion that cannot be overcome by grassroots organizing. And in a few weeks the Census Bureau will release redistricting data that will allow GOP-controlled states like Georgia and Texas to draw new maps that will likely lock in one-party control of those states for the next decade and could cost Democrats their majority in the House of Representatives in 2022.

For that reason, civil rights groups are upping the pressure on Biden to get more engaged in the Senate debate over voting rights, urging him to expend as much energy on this issue as his administration has in lobbying for an infrastructure deal.

Last week, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) was arrested inside the Senate for demonstrating in favor of voting rights. On Thursday, another group of voting rights advocates, including Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), were arrested outside the Hart Senate Office Building.

“Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho. The filibuster has got to go!” #ProtectOurVotingRights #BlackVotersMatter pic.twitter.com/jorMrApw1Q

— Black Voters Matter (@BlackVotersMtr) July 22, 2021

Texas Democrats who fled their state for Washington to block a sweeping GOP voter suppression bill have made clear that if Congress doesn’t pass federal legislation by August 6, when their special legislative session ends, Republican governor Greg Abbott will immediately call a new one and arrest the legislators when they return home, denying them the ability to block it again.

“Part of what we’re doing here is expressing how dire it is that we get this done,” Texas Democratic Rep. John Bucy III told me after he arrived in Washington. “There is a direct assault on voting rights in states all across this country, and it’s imperative we have a federal solution to this problem.”

Her DACA Application Was Pending. Then a Federal Judge in Texas Ruled Against the Program.

Karla Mercado Dorado left Bolivia when she was two years old, which means the United States is the only home she’s ever known. Growing up undocumented, she felt like she had to keep it a secret. “I didn’t know what would happen if I told someone, how they would react, and if anything would happen to me or to my family,” she said.

Dorado was eligible to apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which provides work authorization and temporary relief from deportation for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. But by the time she reached the required age, then President Donald Trump moved to end the Obama-era program.

After years of waiting, Dorado was finally able to apply for status last December, when a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to accept new applications. By June, as many as 81,000 undocumented youth had applied for DACA for the first time since the program reopened, but a growing backlog has left Dorado and thousands of prospective Dreamers in limbo—and vulnerable—again.

Last week, their hopes turned into disappointment after a Texas judge ruled against DACA and barred the federal government from granting initial requests, at least for the time being.

In a case brought by Texas and a coalition of Republican-led states challenging the legality of DACA, U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen determined that the creation and operation of DACA was unlawful and violated the Administrative Procedure Act. The long-awaited decision doesn’t impact the more than 600,000 Dreamers who currently have status under DACA; it instructs the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to continue to accept applications and requests for renewals. But it puts on hold the approval of new cases like Dorado’s.

“It was a huge blow,” she says. “I remember just getting really emotional thinking back to all of the plans that I had for for when I finally got DACA and all the hope that I felt getting the second opportunity and the effort that I put in when I was applying.” 

All of us who were applying for the first time are once again anxious and lost. The negative impact of Hanen’s decision on DACA happened immediately. We need permanent citizenship now!

— United We Dream (@UNITEDWEDREAM) July 19, 2021

In June, as DACA turned 9 years old, I wrote about six first-time applicants who shared “how being undocumented runs deep.” They described feeling trapped because of their uncertain immigration status in the country, missing out on milestone experiences in high school, and having to jump through hoops to achieve their educational goals. For the lucky few who got approved before Judge Hanen’s decision came out, having DACA has offered a sense of relief and security, even if temporary. As Mexican-born Miranda Lovaas described to me:

I think I bawled for two hours straight when I was approved. I was excited, but also feeling survivor’s guilt. For so many people, it’s too late to make a difference for their lives, whether they’ve already been deported, whether they have died in this country while being undocumented, whether they would have been able to apply and gotten approved, but maybe they got arrested and now that hurts their chances.

It took me being 25 for this to happen. It makes me sad for the 16-year-old me who had to lie to her friends about why she couldn’t do this, why she couldn’t do that. It makes me sad for the 18-year-old me who was petrified at the thought of becoming an adult and still not having legal documents. I can’t tell you how many nights I stayed up as a kid just hoping that something would give before I became a legal adult, and of course it didn’t.

For countless others like Dorado, this latest setback feels like having something taken from them a second time. “I’m back to where I began the first time when I was eligible but it got ended before I could apply,” she says. “Back to square one.”

Although she rushed to submit her application in December, her biometrics appointment wasn’t scheduled until May due to delayed processing times. Now, Dorado adds, DHS is holding on to background information and $495 individual application fees from thousands of people like her. “We get so close and then it is taken away so easily. It’s even more frustrating seeing how just one person decides the future of so many people.”

But not all is lost. The Biden administration has indicated it will appeal the “deeply disappointing”—though hardly surprising in light of Judge Hanen’s background—ruling and the Department of Homeland Security is expected to issue a rule that would strengthen DACA in the near future. The president and Democratic legislators have also called on Congress to pass the American Dream and Promise Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for as many as 2.5 million undocumented immigrants, including Dreamers. The bill passed the House in March but stalled in the Senate.

“It is my fervent hope that through reconciliation or other means, Congress will finally provide security to all Dreamers, who have lived too long in fear,” Biden said in a statement following the adverse decision from the Texas court. During a CNN town hall this week, he emphasized that Dreamers should be able to stay in the United States. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats have released a $3.5 trillion reconciliation package including a provision that could provide a path to citizenship for Dreamers and other undocumented immigrants, by bypassing the filibuster. The proposal appears to have the support of Sen. Joe Manchin.

Terrible decision on DACA by a federal judge in Texas.

The dreams of hundreds of thousands of young people who are contributing to the American economy will be put on hold for no good reason.

Congress must pass a pathway to citizenship this year. We can’t wait.

— Joaquin Castro (@JoaquinCastrotx) July 16, 2021

Immigrant rights advocates and Dreamers like Dorado say Judge Hanen’s decision only reinforces the need for a permanent solution. “This is not the first attack on DACA, it likely will not be the last,” she says. Dorado was looking forward to getting a job to help cover costs with college and support her parents. She was also hoping to visit family members in Bolivia of whom she has virtually no recollection. Perhaps more importantly, she wanted to have some reassurance that all the sacrifice and hard work hasn’t been in vain. “The whole thing has been waiting: waiting for the decision, for our applications, and now we’re waiting to see what happens next.” 

For Every $1 We Spend on Food, We Rack Up $2 in Public-Health and Environmental Damage

For about $7—less than an hour’s minimum wage—McDonald’s will dish up 1080 calories in the form of a Big Mac, some fries, and a soda. Taco Bell offers an even more enticing proposition: Its beef-laden “Grande Crunchwrap Meal” delivers 1290 calories for just $5. For years, critics of the US food system—Eric Schlosser, Michael Pollan, Raj Patel,  Leah Penniman, Marion Nestle, others—have warned that such deals are actually no bargain when you add in the hidden costs. Those include poverty wages for workers from the farm field to the franchise counter; precious topsoil surrendered to the growing corn and soybeans for cattle feed; greenhouse gases and other deadly pollution emanating from livestock feedlots; widespread misery from diet-related diseases like Type 2 diabetes and heart conditions; and more.  

A new Rockefeller Foundation report adds heft to the concerns about the high costs of cheap food. The United States boasts the “most affordable food in the world,” the foundation’s researchers found. But this cheap fare hides some dirty secrets. The authors dug into 14 metrics—most prominently, health, environment, biodiversity, and livelihoods—to quantify “externalized” costs that aren’t covered by the price of food. 

Altogether, we spend $1.1 trillion feeding ourselves every year; and we rack up at least another $2.1 trillion in expenses that don’t show up in the prices we pay—or on the profit/loss statements of the corporate giants that dominate the food system. (The researchers stress that they took a conservative approach in compiling its assessment of the “true cost of food,” using only data from widely cited reports.)

Here’s how the data broke down (numbers are in billions of dollars): 

Source: Rockefeller Foundation

Diet-related healthcare costs came in $1.145 trillion annually, about equal to our total food expenditure. That means that for every dollar we spend feeding ourselves, we generate at least another dollar in insults to public health. Non-communicable conditions, like obesity and hypertension, make up the bulk of these expenses. “If diet-related disease prevalence rates were reduced to be comparable to countries such as Canada, health care costs could be reduced by close to $250 billion per year,” the study found.

Food insecurity, reckoned at $146 billion annually, is another eye-popper. US inequality is so stark, and poverty rates so high, that even though we have the globe’s most affordable food supply on average, 10.5 percent of US households—and 13.5 percent of households with children—find that their “their access to adequate food for active, healthy living is limited by lack of money and other resources,” to use the USDA’s food-insecurity definition. 

Not surprisingly, the public-health harms of our food system fall hardest on historically marginalized groups. Black and Latinx Americans are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes at rates 1.5 and 1.7 times higher than their white counterparts; and are also much more likely to be exposed to toxic agrichemicals and air pollution from farms, the researchers found. 

And we rack up another $805 billion in environmental and biodiversity destruction with our annual food expenditures—another 80 cents for every dollar we shell out—for everything from greenhouse gas emissions from manure ponds to polluted water and air in agriculture-intensive regions like Iowa, the center of US corn, soybean, and hog production. Indeed, Iowa is a microcosm of the dysfunctions laid about by the Rockefeller Foundation report. The state’s farm fields are the site of a slow-moving, devastating soil-erosion crisis; chemical and manure runoff from them routinely pollutes water; and they’re ultimate source of much of the processed and fast foods that triggers all of these diet-related diseases. The kicker: Rather than face regulation from the federal government, Iowa farmers draw subsidies, to the tune of more than $35 billion between 1995 and 2020. 

I explored some of these themes in my 2020 book Perilous Bounty. Here’s a sample. 

As for the cuisine that grows from transforming corn and soybeans into cheap meat, sweeteners, fats, and processing agents, it’s hardly an advertisement for robust health and longevity. Nearly 60 percent of the calories Americans consume come from the very “ultra-processed” foods that are shot through with corn and soybean derivatives. On any given day, about  37 percent of Americans have at least one meal from a fast-food chain—another industry puffed up by the Corn Belt’s bounty (think corn-and soybean-fed beef, corn-sweetened soda, potatoes fried in soybean oil). It’s no wonder that “nearly half of all American adults have one or more chronic diseases that are related to poor quality diets,” a 2017 study by National Cancer Institute researchers reported. The so-called western diet—the culinary manifestation of the corn/soybean duopoly—is a harbinger of such diet-related distress, and researchers have documented that as it spreads across the globe, it leaves a pandemic of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease in its wake.

In short, our country’s gargantuan corn and soybean crops, concentrated in Iowa and surrounding states and occupying more than half of U.S. farmland, is essentially a zero-profit industry for farmers, propped up by billions in government payouts. The main beneficiaries are a set of interlocking, enormous corporations, each generating billions of dollars for shareholders and delivering in exchange a mountain of health-ruining food.

The Rockefeller Foundation report doesn’t lay out much in the way of solutions to the wreckage being generated by our food-production regime. Instead, it provides a stark frame for thinking them through. “Realizing a better food system requires facing hard facts. We must accurately calculate the full cost we pay for food today to successfully shape economic and regulatory incentives tomorrow,” the introduction states. In a summer of cascading climate mayhem, I can’t think of a more urgent task. 

Who Stands to Benefit Most From California’s Climate Resilience Funds? White Men.

As dozens of active wildfires blaze across California, prompting evacuations and torching more than 200,000 acres, state legislators met Tuesday to consider who really benefits from their spending on climate relief.

The state’s Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management held an oversight hearing on the role of equity in the roughly $1 billion that California has earmarked for climate resilience spending—a pot of funds meant to help communities across the state mitigate and recover from the fallout of climate change through efforts like wildfire prevention, forest restoration, and preparation for drought and flooding.

92 percent of the jobs created by the bonds would go to white men.

At the meeting, advocates for racial and social justice raised concerns over how this funding would be spent in the wake of two proposed climate resilience bonds—AB-1500 and SB-45—that have drawn criticism for failing to meet basic equity measures. A study recently published by the Gender Equity Policy Institute found that the proposed spending plans would distribute the funds “in a radically unbalanced, unfair, and unequal way” that would overwhelmingly benefit white men—leaving BIPOC and female residents without their fair share.

While the bills may not pass, they are still a blueprint for how the resilience funds are likely to be spent. “Splitting up the pie is based on those bond frameworks,” said Senator Henry Stern, chair of the Joint Committee on Emergency Management. “That’s the baseline.”

In general, women and people of color are already disproportionately affected by climate change. At a time when these conditions are getting worse, choices in how we approach resiliency will have significant impacts on these populations. 

Among the key findings, GEPI’s analysis found that 92 percent of the jobs created by the bonds would go to white men and that the “whitest and most male” regions of California would receive a “windfall” of funding disproportionate to their population. Roughly half of all Black and Latino Californians reside in the Los Angeles region, comprising nearly 45 percent of California’s population. But the current proposed spending plans would allocate only 21 percent of the funds there.

“By nearly any measure, the investments proposed by AB-1500 and SB-45 fail the regional equity test. They fail the climate justice test. They fail the racial justice test,” the report says.

Stern organized the Tuesday hearing after seeing the report and being “blown away” by how significantly people of color and women would be underfunded. The meeting marked the first time the committee had looked at pre-disaster hazard mitigation. “The legislature needed to hear that sort of sobering truth and start making some decisions leading into these budget negotiations. How much are we going to let people and equity drive our strategy?”

The recent bills replicate past mitigation and preparation efforts that didn’t emphasize  factors like urban vulnerability to climate change or the impacts of extended heat waves. For instance, the current plan concentrates the majority of spending in California’s rural North Coast and Sierra Nevada regions—areas where fire prevention and restoration projects have taken place in the past.

“The forestry management projects in the North Coast of the Sierra Nevadas are ready to go. There’s timber harvest plans, and the timber industry is partnered with the state and the federal government, and they all know just what to do,” Stern said.

But according the Stern, the bills fail to address the risk of climate change in urban centers. The GEPI report notes that extreme heat has a bigger impact on health than any other climate change impact, citing research predicting that “Californians will suffer more illness and be at greater risk of early death from rising temperatures and longer heat waves.”

One study cited by the report estimated that by 2050, extreme heat conditions could cause heat-related deaths in California to climb by as many as 6,700 to 11,300 each year. Urban dwellers and outdoor workers are especially vulnerable to extreme heat, in particular those that are low income and can’t afford air conditioning, health insurance, and quality housing. According to the report, the affects of heat conditions on these populations is estimated to cost California $50 billion a year. 

“No one’s tried to crack the nut of how to deal with extreme heat in urban areas in any kind of strategic way.”

But the California legislature’s current framework for climate resilience doesn’t focus on these factors. “No one’s tried to crack the nut of how to deal with extreme heat in urban areas in any kind of strategic way.”

Social justice advocates say the approach to climate resilience needs to adapt to meet the needs of the moment, taking into account urban centers, worker protections, and public health–and equity needs to be at the heart of that decision-making.  

Still, even if advocates succeed in their effort to make equity a central element in resilience planning, $1 billion is a paltry amount in the face of statewide climate issues that rack up billions of dollars in damage annually through wildfire alone. “We’re sitting here negotiating over a billion dollar pie. It’s just inherently inadequate, when you’re talking about a trillion dollar risk,” Stern said. 

Lawmakers will negotiate a spending plan for the bill in coming weeks until the end of the legislative session. It will be revisited when the session reconvenes in August.

Republicans Suddenly Want You to Get Vaccinated. They Hope You Listen to Their Pelosi-Bashing More.

Republican leaders who have spent the pandemic bucking mask mandates, railing against so-called vaccine passports, and largely sitting on the sidelines of vaccine outreach appear to be undergoing a strange and abrupt shift this week.

“Get vaccinated,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday, adding that people should “ignore all of these other voices that are giving demonstrably bad advice.”

Though he declined to call out specific names, the remarks from the top Republican were widely interpreted as a rare, indirect condemnation of those in his party, as well as Fox News talking heads, who have sown deep mistrust of COVID-19 vaccines. Now, others are following suit, albeit tepidly.

But for some of the loudest opponents of COVID safety measures, including most recently Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Rep. Steve Scalise, questions still loom over whether they’ll apply the same vigor with which they slammed various mask mandates and health precautions to their new push to get inoculated. Take a Thursday press conference by the GOP Doctors Caucus, where alongside a few scattered calls to get vaccinated, accusations of Democrats covering up the origins of the coronavirus dominated.

“Speaker Pelosi refuses to hold a hearing on how this started,” Scalise, who on Sunday revealed that he finally received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine after months of resistance, told reporters. “If we’re ever going to be able to get through this and especially prevent something like this from happening again, we need to be able to find out at least how this happened.” 

“What does Speaker Pelosi have to hide? Why is Speaker Pelosi actively fighting to get the facts out?” he continued. “Why is she trying to do the work of the Chinese Communist Party in covering this up?” 

The same talking point was repeated by virtually everyone who spoke at the news conference, including the party’s new No. 3 in the House, Rep. Elise Stefanik. “Every American has been negatively impacted in some way by the COVID-19 virus,” Stefanik said, “but the question is, why are Democrats stonewalling our efforts to uncover the origins of the COVID virus?”

Ronny Jackson, former President Trump’s White House physician, went one step further, falsely suggesting that Democrats have resisted disclosing their vaccination statuses. (Indeed, they have and with a 100 percent vaccination rate.) Jackson also claimed, without evidence, that the delegation of Texas Democrats who fled the state for DC last week of spreading COVID to the White House.

Ronny Jackson: I think you as a press have a responsibility to ask questions of the Democrats as well. How many of the Democrats are willing to say whether or not they’ve been vaccinated? pic.twitter.com/gkKzfmCgs8

— Acyn (@Acyn) July 22, 2021

That Republicans, in their most high profile push for vaccines yet, appeared to favor blasting China and false allegations of a Democratic cover-up over the promotion of a critical, life-saving component to ending the pandemic is not exactly surprising. But that stubborn prioritization is all but certain to exacerbate the rampant vaccine hesitation and misinformation that continues to plague vaccine efforts at a dangerous moment for Americans, with the Delta variant ripping across unvaccinated communities throughout the country. Those areas include Florida, a state that now accounts for a staggering 1 out of every 5 Delta cases in the United States.

“These vaccines are saving lives,” Florida Gov. DeSantis told reporters on Wednesday, a week after it had emerged that he was selling anti-Anthony Fauci merchandise on his website. Of course, DeSantis didn’t completely abandon his anti-COVID safety measures stance. In the same press conference, he blamed mask mandates and government officials who encourage vaccination for slowing down inoculation rates, once again casting doubt on the sudden embrace of vaccines by the GOP.

Today It’s Critical Race Theory. 200 Years Ago It Was Abolitionist Literature.

There have been many contributions to help make sense of the Republican obsession with critical race theory, a framework developed some 40 years ago to analyze the ways racism is endemic to our laws and policies. Conservatives have decided it’s a domestic threat, and, as of this writing, 11 states have already banned teaching it in public schools. But perhaps the best explanation for the hysteria is in a journal entry written on April 7, 1829, by a schoolteacher named Susan Nye Hutchison, who lived in Augusta, Georgia, and whose diaries illuminate a quarter century of life before the Civil War. “Great fear begins to be prevalent that the negroes are about to rise,” Hutchison wrote.

Georgians had experienced a spate of fires, as rumors of insurrection made the citizens of Augusta both negro- and pyro-phobic. Four days before Hutchison’s entry, another “terrible fire” burned about a third of the city, according to a contemporary news article. Estimated damages totaled half a million dollars, with nearly 350 homes destroyed. Hysteria ensued, and enslaved Black people were blamed, rounded up, and tried without evidence.

Months later, a pamphlet named the Appeal, David Walker’s polemic against slavery, emerged in the South. “My object is, if possible,” Walker, a free Black man, wrote, “to awaken in the breasts of my afflicted, degraded and slumbering brethren, a spirit of inquiry and investigation respecting our miseries and wretchedness.”

Southern politicians viewed Walker’s Appeal and its repudiation of their values as “incendiary,” a pyrotechnic of another kind. When Walker’s treatise reached his hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, magistrate James McKee issued a warning to Gov. John Owen:

The dissemination of Walker’s pamphlet…[proves] beyond a doubt that a systematic attempt is making by some reckless persons at the North to sow sedition among the slaves [of] the South, and that this pamphlet is intended and well calculated to prepare the minds of the slave population for any measure, however desperate, that they may propose for accomplishing their emancipation…unless some measures are taken to counteract this design in time, I fear the consequences may be serious to the extreme.

North Carolina quickly passed two laws aimed at stemming slave rebellions by repressing the spread of abolitionist literature. An Act to Prevent the Circulation of Seditious Publications made it a felony to import and distribute “any written or printed pamphlet or paper…the evident tendency whereof would be to excite insurrection, conspiracy or resistance.” A second law banned “the teaching of slaves to read and write,” saying it “has a tendency to excite dissatisfaction in their minds and to produce insurrection and rebellion to the manifest injury of the citizens of this State.”

Walker’s Appeal also led to Georgia’s December 1829 anti-literacy law, which made circulating insurrectionary texts punishable by death. Virginia, Missouri, and others followed. As a Missouri state archive website puts it, the bans were deemed necessary because “an uneducated black population made white citizens feel more secure against both abolitionists and slave uprisings.”

“This is a terrorist assault in our country, and rioting cannot be tolerated,” Ted Cruz said last year as citizens rebelled against police murder. Republicans had little scripture to demonize protests against the public torture and execution of George Floyd, so they deferred their anti-rebellion rhetoric into new laws against looting, property damage, and even protesting, suggesting that failing to do so would bring a conflagration that would consume the country. “These people are violent, domestic extremists,” Marco Rubio said. “They hate the police, they hate the government, and they want this country to fall apart…some of them want a second civil war.”

Anti-protest bills were an opening salvo against the Black Lives Matter rebellions, but there would be another volley. As demonstrators and their allies picked up How to Be an Antiracist, White Fragility, and other books—which helped them articulate demands to dismantle white supremacy, to rebel against state-sanctioned murder, to call for defunding police and obliterating qualified immunity—Republicans turned to locking down these texts and the ideas they carry.

A school board meeting in Loudon County, Virginia.

Evelyn Hockstein / Reuters

From 2012 to 2019, critical race theory was mentioned on Fox News only four times. From June 2020 to May 2021, it was mentioned in 150 broadcasts. By July, it was 250 times a week. Christopher Rufo, a Manhattan Institute fellow who started banging the CRT drum on the network, was quite frank about how and why he’d engineered the upward trend. “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans,” he tweeted in March.

In attacking the things they’ve labeled as critical race theory, Republicans are seeking to erase the entire contemporary genre of abolitionist oratory. Critical race theory, diversity training, anti-­racism, DEI, discussions of white fragility, Nikole Hannah-Jones and her New York Times 1619 Project—to them, it’s all interchangeable jargon in the Black Lives Matter anthem, seditious lyrics that prelude uprisings against the proper order of things. This campaign to annihilate anti-­racist speech is not only the ideological offspring of the laws banning abolition literature; it’s a ruse to veil their hatred and fear of Black Lives Matter rebellions.

Literacy among enslaved Africans was not always antithetical to slavery in the colonies. It was once permissible for the enslaved to read Bibles, but when colonists realized the skill could be a gateway to liberation, literacy was outlawed. The first anti-literacy legislation in the colonies was in the wake of South Carolina’s 1739 Stono Rebellion, led by the purportedly literate slave Jemmy and resulting in the death of some 25 white people, as many as 50 Black people, and the burning of at least six plantations. Afterward, the colony passed An Act for the Better Ordering and Governing Negroes and Other Slaves in This Province. The law contained a bevy of provisions to keep enslaved Africans in “subjection and obedience,” essentially ending manumission and prohibiting them from writing or growing their own food.

The fear of insurrection and rebellion—and the spread of thoughts and words that might fuel them—persists today. “Critical Race Theory teaches kids to hate our country and to hate each other. It is state-sanctioned racism and has no place in Florida schools,” said Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor. A bill he signed into law forbids teaching “that racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons.” It also says educators “may not define American history as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” The text echoes an op-ed article published in the Richmond Enquirer in 1856:

Every school and college in the South should teach that slave society is the common, natural, rightful and normal state of society. Any doctrine short of this contains abolition in the germ: for, if it be not the rightful and natural form of society, it cannot last, and we should prepare for its gradual but ultimate abolition…To teach such doctrines we must have Southern teachers and Southern school books. It is from the school that public opinion proceeds, and the schools should be set right. No teacher should be employed in a private family or public school at the South, who is not ready to teach these doctrines. Parents, trustees and visitors should look to this thing.

Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon shared this prophecy on his podcast in May. “The path to save the nation is very simple—it’s going to go through the school boards.” That fight played out mercilessly at the University of North Carolina, where the conservative-­controlled board of trustees’ unprecedented obstructions to hiring Hannah-Jones caused her to walk away from a prestigious position on the journalism faculty.

Locally, parents have taken heed, turning school board hearings into tribunals to eradicate anti-racism. Elana Yaron Fishbein, founder of No Left Turn in Education, a grassroots movement against critical race theory, claimed in a letter to her district’s superintendent that such curricula “plan to indoctrinate the children into the ‘woke’ culture.”

And here is where she gives up what’s underneath the euphemisms. Fishbein wants to know: Would the lessons also address “black bigotry towards whites?” “America is not a ‘racist’ country,” she wrote. “White students who attend predominantly black inner-city schools fear for their lives daily,” but they do not declare “White Lives Matter” or “loot and vandalize their communities to bring attention to this issue.”

Fishbein’s fanaticism about Black-on-white bigotry helps us understand what can come from banning literature on slavery and racism. Her question has precedent: After purchasing his freedom, but unable to secure that of his wife and children, Denmark Vesey helped found Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. There he would plan a “rising,” a slave rebellion, reportedly set to have included more than 1,000 Black people. But Vesey’s rebellion, scheduled for June 16, 1822, was thwarted. Vesey was hanged, his church razed and not to be rebuilt until after the Civil War.

Two years after rebellions over the death of Trayvon Martin, one year after protests against the killing of Michael Brown, and one day after the 193rd anniversary of Vesey’s foiled rebellion, Dylann Roof walked into Denmark Vesey’s resurrected sanctuary and massacred nine Black Americans—after googling, in a query that would be echoed by Fishbein, “black on white crime.” Roof’s miseducation and fear of a Black uprising led him to that atrocity. Does this not vindicate efforts to teach the facts—and consequences—of our history?

Hollywood Loves Rape-Revenge Plots. But What Story Are They Really Telling?

Act I Rape

He has lured her into his apartment, smeared her with cocaine, drenched her in opinions about Consider the Lobster as he inches closer to her on the futon. She is bleary-eyed, listless, her consonants soft at the edges. “I feel such a connection to you,” Neil assures her, before prying her bare legs apart with his hand. “I needa go home,” she says. “Noo, don’t go, stay,” he whispers, marking her neck with kisses. “Oh my god, you are so, so pretty.” “I need to go home,” she repeats, but instead his hands disappear under her skirt.
Then her eyes snap open. “Hey Neil,” she says, no longer drunk, her voice suddenly self-assured and lucid, her hand shooting out to grab his face: “I said I need to go home.”

If you’ve seen Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, you anticipated this sudden reversal. In several of the film’s opening scenes, ultra-feminine Cassie, played by Carey Mulligan, tricks a random man into thinking she’s inebriated, follows along as he tries to hook up with her without her consent, and then 180s on him, abruptly casting off her intoxication to shame her would-be rapist in the act.

Her motivation trickles out as the film progresses: Cassie’s best friend, Nina, was raped while in medical school, causing her to drop out and then presumably to kill herself. After watching the man who assaulted Nina go unpunished, friends become complacent, and the school ignore the incident, Cassie steps into a new role: that of voracious avenger. Her ploys continue to escalate and become more destructive, riding the steady winds of her rage.
 

Nicole Rifkin

 
In Promising Young Woman, justice takes the form of the rape-revenge narrative, in which a character experiences or witnesses an act of sexual violence and then extracts vengeance on the perpetrator. The rape-revenge narrative has had a resurgence in recent years, as a sort of wish fulfillment for the #MeToo era. But the plot device is nothing new; it spawned a whole subgenre of exploitation films back in the 1970s, including the gory thriller I Spit on Your Grave, and continued to turn up in hundreds of movies over the decades.

Rape-revenge films aren’t feminist, per se, but rather they represent the “way in which Hollywood can be seen to be making sense of feminism,” argues scholar Jacinda Read in her 2000 book, The New Avengers: Feminism, Femininity, and the Rape-Revenge Cycle. The films resist broad characterization, notes Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, the author of Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study. Taken as a whole, she wrote in an email, the films “articulate just how confused and hypocritical our broader attitudes to gendered violence and sexism in general are.”

Rape-revenge films aren’t feminist, per se, but rather they represent the “way in which Hollywood can be seen to be making sense of feminism.”

Diverse as these stories may be, they tend to present a similar sequence of events, Read points out: rape, transformation of the victim, and then revenge. In several post-#MeToo iterations, the avenger targets not only a single perpetrator of rape, but rape culture more broadly. Such is the case in Promising Young Woman. Cassie unleashes on lascivious men, witnesses, lawyers, and school administrators—an entire network that legitimized her friend’s rape and others like it.

It’s also the case in Lisa Taddeo’s new novel, Animal. Taddeo made waves with her 2019 nonfiction book, Three Women, a masterful portrait of sexual desire and abuse. It’s as if she inhaled the cruelties her subjects endured in her first book and exhaled Animal’s protagonist, Joan. Taddeo told audiences at a May book event that while writing about “all the trauma, rage built up in me.” In Joan’s world, husbands always betray wives, and fathers their families; young women left alone fall prey to seedy men who are constantly circling. “Honestly, sometimes I think it’s the only recourse,” her friend Alice comments, “killing men in times like these.”

These stories offer a retributive vision of justice, the violence of the man mirrored back onto him. Traditional gender roles are flipped—the woman is the predator, and the man is the prey—but the basic shape of the conventional revenge story is unchanged. Witnessing women take revenge in film and fiction may offer a cathartic thrill, but the trope can also function as a trap; vengeance replicates the same power structure the avenger wishes to hold accountable.

Here we have a depiction of violation and redress suited to the way the country conceives of justice: The enemy must be rooted out and made to suffer in turn. This is the moral logic of films like Kill Bill, and it is also the moral logic of mass incarceration, which has done nothing to make us safer and certainly nothing to make sexual violence less ubiquitous.

But justice can and should mean something other than the balancing of harms, as prison and police abolitionists and other activists have argued. In resisting the carceral approach to punishment, they advocate a politics of structural change, of experimentation and openness to new social forms. These ideas demand a radical artistic approach to match, a breaking free of the traps of the revenge plot. A couple of recent works give us a sense of this. Call it the reparative mode.

 

Nicole Rifkin Act II Revenge

In the sci-fi TV show Westworld, humans enact their shoot-’em-up and sexual fantasies on semi-conscious AI robots programmed to depict stock characters from the 1800s Wild West. In the season 2 opener, the robot Dolores—a sweet rancher’s daughter turned vigilante after all the accumulated trauma—confronts some of the theme park’s board members, whom she’s taken hostage. “Did you ever stop to wonder about your actions? The price you’d have to pay if there was a reckoning?” Dolores asks, toying with a pistol as her blond hair streams behind her, a bandolier of bullets slung across her chest. “That reckoning is here.”

The line, arriving after Dolores has been violated and mutilated dozens of times, lands with a satisfying smack. And that’s often the case with watching revenge stories: They beckon with a sense of fairness, symmetrical closure; as the old saying goes, an eye for an eye.

The allure of revenge also lies in its potential to spark a personal metamorphosis. Dolores begins Westworld as a saccharine ingenue, but by season 2 has morphed into a confident killer. Promising Young Woman’s Cassie was just another eager med school student before she began weaponizing her femininity (and whiteness, as several critics have pointed out) to bait perverts. Animal’s protagonist, Joan, spent years acquiescing to slimeballs before finally suffocating one of them in his bed. Enacting revenge, these narratives hint, empowers women.

But is it empowerment? Westworld, like many controversial rape-revenge stories before it, spends an inordinate amount of time sensationalizing rape for the sake of entertainment. Its female avengers look suspiciously like the cowboys of testosterone-dominated Westerns. And their strength seems to have come about as a result of having been raped; their empowerment, then, relies first on their violation and then on their assuming the guises and behaviors of their assailants.

Vengeance replicates the same power structure the avenger wishes to hold accountable.

Emerald Fennell was likely aware of the exploitative tendencies of the rape-revenge genre when she released Promising Young Woman. As her film was making waves last year, Fennell told Variety, “We’ve seen this movie a billion times. Let’s then be honest with it.”

Fennell forgoes reenacting the central rape scene that fuels her protagonist’s transformation and instead focuses on the fallout of that transformation. Cassie’s obsession with revenge derails her career ambitions; it gets in the way of her relationships; it infantilizes her. She paints her nails the color of Starburst candies and drinks from a juice box.

After a betrayal pushes her over the edge, she ups the ante on her revenge tactics and—stop reading this if you care about spoilers—she ends up dead. If Fennell’s Cassandra was trying to deliver us a message, she is silenced before we can make out the words.

Revenge may corrupt as much as it empowers, these rape-revenge stories seem to say. Yet even as Promising Young Woman acknowledges the destructive nature of revenge, the film offers a limited conception of justice. In the film’s final scene, an outdoor wedding punctuated by a trail of blood-red rose petals, police sirens flood the air, and cops haul away Cassie’s friend’s rapist after he has said “I do” to a swimsuit model. Cassie gets her revenge in the end. It just comes by way of the police.

Nicole Rifkin Act III Transformation

One kind of rape-revenge story seeks to empower its heroine by handing her a weapon. A different kind gives her the tools to break free from the cycle of violence she is caught in. It does so by reimagining the very composition of the narrative that binds her.

“For centuries there’s been one path through fiction we’re most likely to travel—one we’re actually told to follow—and that’s the dramatic arc,” writes Jane Alison in her 2019 lit-crit book, Meander, Spiral, Explode. In this arc, Alison writes, “a situation arises, grows tense, reaches a peak, subsides.” Something that “swells and tautens until climax, then collapses? Bit masculo-sexual, no?” By adhering to this form, we remain caged in its patriarchal origins. Why not draw on other structures instead?

Alison’s book focuses on alternative fictional forms that mimic natural patterns. But I find her logic applicable to the rape-revenge narrative and its limitations. Rape, transformation, revenge: Will using this same tired formula provide a pathway to justice, or is it simply a route that leads to more destruction, even when the law steps in?

Michaela Coel’s 2020 HBO series, I May Destroy You, toys with this question as it probes the wreckage of sexual assault. Coel—who, in contrast to Fennell, had complete control over the work as its creator, co-director, executive producer, and lead actress—plays Arabella, a millennial author who is drugged and raped at a London club one night. (Coel had a similar experience in 2016.) Arabella wrestles with first acknowledging that the trauma even occurred, and then with how to respond, as her friends Terry and Kwame help her process the horrendous incident while reckoning with their own violations of consent.

In the show’s last episode, “Ego Death,” the narrative splinters into three alternate realities. The first scenario mirrors the classic rape-revenge plot: Arabella hatches a scheme to drug the man who raped her, and then ends up kicking his head in on the sidewalk and stuffing his body under her bed. In the next, Terry helps Arabella lure the man into the bathroom and then calls the cops on him, though not before Arabella has learned of his fragility and started to sympathize with him. The last scenario shows Arabella passionately hooking up with the man, even playing a dominant role in the seduction.

After each scenario, Arabella revises a notecard pinned to her wall, the pieces of a book she is composing. As she cycles through yet never clearly settles on these possible endings—violent revenge, extreme empathy, or sexual fantasy—her choice becomes a moot point. The transformation we’re witnessing is subtle but no less meaningful for it: Arabella is taking back the reins of her own story, and of her life.

Susan Choi’s 2019 novel, Trust Exercise, also incorporates a fragmentary, mazelike structure to destabilize our expectations of how sexual assault should be dealt with. Set at a performing arts school in a swampy Southern city in the 1980s, the first part of the novel focuses on 15-year-olds Sarah and David, caught up in a classically awkward teenage love story and lorded over by an intrusive drama teacher, Mr. Kingsley. Yet halfway through the action, the story fractures, and we’re introduced to Sarah’s friend Karen, who proceeds to recount her own version of the same events.

As this new story unfolds and fractures yet again, characters collapse into one another, the point of view seesaws between third person and first, and parallels emerge that undermine our sense of the truth. In a play within the play, Karen appears to take revenge on an older ex-lover playing the lead role, a guy who impregnated her and then disappeared when she was 16. But then the chapter ends, and the curtain closes. Was it just a fantasy?

Neither of these works offers a simple solution to sexual violence. Yet by defying traditional narrative structures, they urge a rethinking of the very forms they’re contained within. The result is an atmosphere of uncertainty and contingency, a resistance to pat answers. This is the reparative mode: It rejects the destructive reflex in favor of an openness to possibilities that have yet to be explored.

In this way, these fictional works echo the thinking of a set of activists who for decades have been advocating a response to sexual violence that does not perpetuate the same violence it seeks to redress. “The punishment mindset is very hard to get out of,” abolitionist activist and educator Mariame Kaba said in a 2018 interview about #MeToo on the podcast How to Survive the End of the World. The desire for vengeance is a healthy and normal reaction, she explained, but the use of violence as punishment doesn’t work. That includes violence in the form of revenge, and it also includes violence in the form of incarceration. “If we want to reduce (or end) sexual and gendered violence,” Kaba writes in her recent book, We Do This ’Til We Free Us, “putting a few perpetrators in prison does little to stop the many other perpetrators. It does nothing to change a culture that makes this harm imaginable, to hold the individual perpetrator accountable, to support their transformation, or to meet the needs of the survivors.”

Kaba and other practitioners of a modality called transformative justice—many of them steeped in Black radical traditions—focus on holding people who commit violence accountable within and by their communities. And they advocate addressing the root causes of crime to disrupt cycles of harm. “No one enters violence for the first time by committing it,” Kaba’s friend and fellow activist Danielle Sered once said. Violence is a feedback loop, a series of terrible symmetries. Rather than perpetuating its cycles through punishment, “it’s the harm that I’m interested in transforming,” Kaba explains. Doing so will require forgoing further punishment and withdrawing from prison and policing systems that act as systems of oppression—in other words, a complete transformation of the structures in place.

I May Destroy You offers a brief glimpse of what that world might look like. In several of the last episode’s alternate reality scenarios, Arabella pauses for some fresh air on her apartment’s rooftop. Her roommate asks whether she’ll be spending the evening at the bar where she was raped, hunting for the man who carried out the act. In the first couple iterations of this scene, Arabella says yes. But the last time we see the scene play out, Arabella ponders the roommate’s question and says “nah.” She then rises and gives her roommate a big hug. It’s a small gesture, but it signals a big leap: Rather than choosing retribution, she is surrounding herself with love.

A Postal Worker Filed Three OSHA Complaints about COVID Protections. She Got 6 Weeks in the Hospital Instead.

This story was originally published by ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Last November, just as Minnesota was suffering through a punishing wave of COVID-19, managers at a St. Paul U.S. Postal Service distribution center allowed employees to hold a going-away party in the building.

Alejandra Hernandez, a mail handler at that center, was shocked when she saw the gathering: Almost everything about it seemed to violate pandemic safety policies. More than 15 of her colleagues were together in a break room meant for six, chatting, eating and not wearing masks.

That day, she filed her second of three complaints to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “I hoped that someone would come and make them take this seriously,” Hernandez recalled.

She wasn’t the only one complaining about problems at the facility — another employee had filed a complaint in July, alleging that workers weren’t being alerted of potential exposures and the building didn’t have proper ventilation. Others filed three more complaints in September alleging that the site’s sanitation practices, personal protective equipment and quarantine measures were insufficient.

The limited response to Hernandez and her colleagues’ appeals for help provides a window into the failures of the Postal Service, one of the country’s largest employers, and OSHA, which is supposed to protect workers, in responding to the pandemic. Approximately 55,600 postal workers have tested positive for COVID-19 nationwide, and at least 197 have died.

In response to the complaints, OSHA conducted two remote inspections, done via phone calls and emails. It found “incidental deficiencies” that did not merit any fines or corrective action. Its report mentioned in passing a problem that was far from incidental for Hernandez and others: Managers weren’t always notifying workers about possible exposure.

According to the USPS’ official count, about 200 of the St. Paul facility’s 1,500 employees have fallen sick with COVID-19. But state health department records obtained by ProPublica show that the Postal Service often missed or didn’t disclose cases. The state tracked clusters of cases linked to the St. Paul building, many of which do not show up in the USPS’s count.

Hernandez herself became one of those cases in March, when she got COVID-19 and spent six weeks in the hospital. She still struggles to keep her oxygen levels up, and her doctor has instructed her not to stand for more than 15 minutes at a time. She reported her illness to management, but no COVID-19 cases show up in daily case counts sent by management to union officials anytime near the day she got sick. The USPS did not respond to a question about the discrepancy.

That same month, one of Hernandez’s colleagues at the plant died from the virus. Mary Ellen Moore, 62, had worked at the St. Paul plant for 35 years. According to her family, the USPS hadn’t informed her of any possible exposures at work, and she wasn’t aware of any cases in the building. But according to state health department records, there was a cluster of at least 11 cases on her side of the building when she got sick. Only three cases appear in the USPS’ case report to unions.

In response to detailed questions from ProPublica, the Postal Service said it put comprehensive policies and practices in place at the start of the pandemic that help ensure the health and well-being of its employees. “We continue to follow the strategies and measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and public health departments,” spokesperson David Partenheimer wrote in an email.

Postal workers have routinely sought help from OSHA during the pandemic, but their complaints have had little effect. Since February of last year, USPS employees across the country have filed more than 1,000 complaints alleging COVID-19-related hazards. Following those complaints, OSHA issued citations for four violations, all of which the Postal Service has contested. The USPS hasn’t been obligated to make changes or pay penalties for any of the reported safety hazards.

Postal workers weren’t alone in seeking help that never came. OSHA has often been absent during the pandemic. The Wall Street Journal identified more than 500 COVID-19 outbreaks in workplaces where workers had already warned OSHA of unsafe conditions.

A report earlier this year by the Department of Labor’s inspector general criticized OSHA’s handling of complaints during the pandemic. The watchdog specifically flagged concerns about remote inspections — the kind the government did at the St. Paul distribution center — in which problems “may go unidentified and unabated longer, with employees being more vulnerable to hazardous risk exposure.”

OSHA is still investigating possible COVID-19 safety lapses at the USPS in 20 open cases, an agency spokesperson said, and it’s possible that it will identify more violations. OSHA has also updated its pandemic enforcement plan to prioritize in-person inspections. “Our goal is to investigate every complaint we receive thoroughly, and our updated enforcement approach better ensures that we are doing that,” the agency said.

Hernandez had access to protections and privileges that many U.S. workers don’t: She’s a union member, a citizen and a federal employee with access to paid sick leave, and she knows she has a legal right to a safe workplace. She and other colleagues used all the channels available to them.

But by the time she got sick, she said, she had stopped trying.

“The more I kept fighting it, the more it felt like I was just beating a brick wall,” Hernandez said.

In high school, Hernandez was suspended for getting in the middle of fights, trying to help other kids who got picked on. “I’m not going to sit there and watch kids get beat up,” she said. Now she’s 35, with three kids, and she still can’t sit back and not say anything.

Hernandez clung to the pandemic guidelines developed by the CDC. They were the closest thing she had to instructions on how to survive a pandemic while working alongside 1,500 colleagues. She was especially afraid that she might take the illness home — her sister had just had open heart surgery, her other sister has asthma, her mother is diabetic.

On March 19, while she was still waiting to hear back from OSHA about her November and December complaints, she took her son to the doctor for an ear infection. The nurse noticed red patches on his skin that Hernandez thought were an eczema flare-up, but that can actually be a symptom of COVID-19 in children. Hernandez felt like she had a cold. The county health department called the next day — both she and her son had tested positive. She doesn’t know how she contracted the virus, but said that, besides her children, no one she spent time with outside of work tested positive.

Hernandez called in sick. That weekend, she started hallucinating, a symptom of her fever and lowered oxygen levels. She has no memories of the next few days, but her kids say she was trying to talk to people who weren’t actually there. Soon, she was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. She woke up in diapers, hooked up to an oxygen machine.

Though she called in to the USPS’ absence reporting line the day she got her diagnosis, her case does not appear in daily case totals that district management sends to local union leaders. As ProPublica has previously detailed, the USPS hasn’t consistently told workers when they’ve been exposed to sick colleagues, or how many cases have been reported in the buildings where they work.

Six weeks passed before Hernandez was released. While she was fighting off COVID-19, her 16-year-old daughter and extended family took over caring for Hernandez’s 1- and 4-year-old kids. By the time her doctor cleared her for release, she could barely walk half a block without losing her breath.

On May 6, days after she came home, OSHA sent her a letter. The agency was responding to the complaint she filed five months earlier, when she reported that the USPS wasn’t always following proper quarantine procedures — someone on her shift who had been sick came back to work even though they were still symptomatic. For the second time, OSHA did a remote inspection and concluded that there wasn’t a problem; the USPS had policies that lined up with CDC guidelines. OSHA didn’t do inspections following her complaints about maskless parties.

Though OSHA has issued safety guidelines pertaining to COVID-19 in the workplace, the recommendations don’t have the force of law. President Joe Biden promised to issue an emergency standard that would give OSHA more power to enforce COVID-19-specific measures. When the standard came into effect in June, it applied only to health care workers, leaving out other hard-hit industries.

When Hernandez came back to work in late May, her colleagues didn’t know she’d been sick. Rumors had spread that she’d gone on maternity leave. “They actually asked me if I had a baby,” Hernandez said. When she first reported her illness to the USPS, she named five colleagues she’d had contact with to the agency nurse, so that they could be notified and quarantined. When she later checked with her colleagues, the USPS had only contacted and quarantined one of them, she said. (The USPS said it would not comment on individual cases.)

As ProPublica and the USPS inspector general later detailed, the USPS doesn’t have enough health care staff to identify and quarantine every exposed worker. The inspector general also reported that the agency had no strategy to fill those roles. At the time, 21% of the USPS’ nurse positions were vacant. The nurses are responsible for interviewing sick workers, doing contact tracing to identify exposed workers and clearing people to come back to work.

On the other side of the building from Hernandez’s work area, Moore, a mail clerk, had started feeling sick in early February, a few weeks before Hernandez. Moore told her family she thought it was just the sinus infection and allergies she usually got around this time of yearBut a few days later when she visited her doctor, her breathing was so labored that the doctor had her sent to the hospital in an ambulance.

At first, it didn’t seem like she would be there for long. She and her family stayed in touch with video calls and texts. When her grandson won student of the month for his grades, she celebrated with him over the phone. But her condition worsened. On Feb. 19, she was transferred to the intensive care unit and put on a ventilator soon afterward.

As the days went by, Moore used up her sick leave, then her vacation days. After those ran out, she had to take leave without pay. Once Moore could no longer speak, her older daughter took over calling her USPS supervisor to tell her how to allocate Moore’s leave.

“My mom literally, up until she could no longer talk, was texting her supervisor, making sure how to do her time,” said Vanessa Vasquez, Moore’s daughter. “She was so worried about me talking to her supervisor, and how to divide her annual and sick leave and no pay.”

On March 12, Moore’s lungs collapsed. While she was on the ventilator, her two daughters, her grandchildren and her partner of 30 years visited to say goodbye.

“We were best friends,” Vasquez said. “We were only 20 years apart. Everybody had different bonds with her.” In an interview over Zoom, Vasquez’s 12-year-old son Tony sat with his head in his hands. “She was everything,” he said, before his voice broke.

The family tried hard to limit their exposure to COVID-19, avoiding grocery store visits and contact with anyone outside of the family. They were worried about infecting Moore’s 87-year-old mother. No one in the family tested positive other than Moore’s partner, who didn’t show symptoms. He works for a PPE engineering company and said his employers always sent alerts when there were COVID-19 cases among workers. There hadn’t been any alerts recently.

“I think that if they would’ve told her she’d been exposed, she would’ve gotten tested and maybe her outcome would’ve been different,” her daughter said. “We don’t know that, and we’ll never know that.“

I Am Simply Asking if Ashton Kutcher Is a CIA Asset

John Krasinski, it gives me no pleasure to inform you that there is a new stereotypically attractive white guy in Hollywood who very publicly loves the Central Intelligence Agency. Ashton Kutcher is coming for you.

You’re thinking, “the bonehead from ‘That ’70s Show‘ is a CIA asset? The guy who sat on a stool and scared the shit out of celebrities before popping out and cooly telling them ‘you’ve been Punk’d’?”

The thought never crossed my mind about Kutcher’s relation to the security state until today when I stumbled onto an Instagram post of two screenshots from his Twitter. The tweets:

From 2009: “spent the afternoon picking the brain of a former CIA guy. It really makes you wonder if anything you come in contact w/ is not manipulated.”

From 2018: “Just sending out a morning shout to the men and woman of the intelligence community that keep us safe and protect our country. #gratitude #ty,” with a photo of a haggard pic of Kutcher drinking his morning joe out of a CIA mug.

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A post shared by Oedipus Flex (@academicfraud)

OK. What’s going on here? I went to Twitter and saw a separate Kutcher video had gone viral. In it, Kutcher explains how TikTok might actually (at least partially) be a Chinese psyop to influence the minds of Americans. (TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company.) 

“If I’m China and I want to think about a problem in that area of the world, specifically a naval problem in that area of the world, in the South China Sea, I would probably want to use TikTok to influence the minds of Americans in an anti-U.S. propaganda, anti-Taiwanese propaganda effort,” Kutcher said on American Optimist, the podcast of venture capitalist and Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale, “to make any kind of war from the United States extraordinarily unpopular in order to defend the South China Sea.”

There is a tremendous meta-irony in Kutcher, a famous and well-liked celebrity, talking about the Chinese government using entertainment to influence American sentiment about geopolitics, as he talks about geopolitics.

Maybe he just reads the Economist a lot and has become a hawkish foreign policy guy as a hobby. I don’t know, but it’s weird. So, as a professional journalist, I tried to ask him about it.

“Does Ashton do any work with the CIA or other U.S. national security agencies/does he want to?” I wrote in one of the most stupid but justified emails I’ve ever sent in my life to the PR company that represents Kutcher, K21. I haven’t heard anything back yet, and I don’t think I will.

Google was obviously not much more helpful than K21 but I still found an article that is in the weird matrix of Ashton Kutcher’s fascination with the CIA and American geopolitical interests.

In 2018, on the red carpet for the premiere of “The Spy Who Dumped Me” an ET reporter asked Mila Kunis, whose ex-boyfriend ends up being a spy, about how she’d react if she found out Ashton Kutcher was a spy.

“I’d be like, ‘I knew it!'” she responded. “I wouldn’t put it past him…He also has multiple jobs, like, not everything adds up where I’m like, ‘What do you really do? What is this office you claim to go to, and why is there many different locations of this office?”

Maybe Kunis wanted to give an interesting answer as she promoted her new movie (this is likely), or maybe she was using a reverse psychology deflection (this is unlikely). Who’s to say?

Maybe you’re wondering “If Kutcher was a CIA asset wouldn’t he want to be secretive about it?” You clearly haven’t lived in D.C. if you think that. People who probably work in the intelligence community in D.C. desperately want you to know that they do while being cagey about it. The “tell me you’re [x] without telling me you’re [x]” meme format was potentially accidentally created by some 26-year-old intelligence analyst in Arlington who was workshopping ways to get Tinder dates without getting in trouble at work.

You know you’ve come across one when you meet and they, in a very practiced but somehow slightly giddy voice, tell you the work in “the government” with no further explanation when you ask. No one just says they work in “the government” without specifying unless they work in intel, which is the point.

So yes, Kutcher would act like this if he was a CIA asset. If you think the CIA is cool enough to shill for, you’re going to think it’s cool enough to be associated with, even if you can’t officially be. You’re going to desperately want to be associated. The other explanation is that he just wants people to think this, which is just as (maybe more) likely.

Either way, I don’t know. I’m just asking the questions—specifically about if Ashton Kutcher is an asset of the CIA.

Pelosi Rejects Two Big Lie Enthusiasts From Jan. 6 Commission

Though unprecedented, House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s announcement on Wednesday that she would bar Reps. Jim Jordan and Jim Banks from the commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection made perfect sense. After all, the two Republicans and fierce Trump allies voted against certifying the results of the 2020 election, just hours after the mob stormed the Capitol.

“With respect for the integrity of the investigation, with an insistence on the truth and with concern about statements made and actions taken by these Members, I must reject the recommendations of Representatives Banks and Jordan to the Select Committee,” Pelosi said in a statement. “The unprecedented nature of January 6th demands this unprecedented decision.”

That decision has now, rather predictably, prompted House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to yank all five of his choices from the panel, arguing that unless Pelosi reverses course and accepts his duo of election objectors, he would refuse to allow the “sham process” to go on. The usual cast of conservatives has since complained that Pelosi’s announcement is evidence that the purpose of the commission is to ruin Donald Trump.

lol Pelosi just banned @Jim_Jordan and @RepJimBanks from serving on the Jan 6 select committee.

This is NOT about getting to the truth. It’s political persecution from Democrats.

They will stop at nothing to take down Trump.

— Jenna Ellis (@JennaEllisEsq) July 21, 2021

“Denying the voices of members who have served in the military and law enforcement, as well as leaders of standing committees, has made it undeniable that this panel has lost all legitimacy and credibility and shows the Speaker is more interested in playing politics than seeking the truth,” McCarthy said. “Unless Speaker Pelosi reverses course and seats all five Republican nominees, Republicans will not be party to their sham process and will instead pursue our own investigation of the facts.”

Of course, for all of McCarthy’s complaining, the top Republican was clearly never interested in a meaningful investigation into the events of January 6; his selection of those who continue to back the so-called big lie proves as much. 

House Progressives Get Antsy Over Senate’s Lead Role in Infrastructure Debates

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) escaped the room where the Congressional Progressive Caucus met Tuesday afternoon to declare into her cellphone: “It’s all bad news.”

This was the longtime Chicago-area lawmaker’s synopsis of where things stood on negotiations over Joe Biden’s proposed jobs and infrastructure package. For the time being, the details have been getting hashed out in the Senate, and it was Schakowsky’s colleagues down the hallway of the Capitol that caused her dismay. “Some of the numbers we’re hearing are not great,” she told me when I asked her about her phone call. The process seemed designed to “reduce the leverage of the House.”

Those concerns had been the hot topic during the meeting of Congress’ left-leaning lawmakers. Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) described “frustrations” among her caucus members over the Senate’s process and what’s been “left out of what they’re doing so far.” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, offered a similar synopsis. “We don’t want our Senate colleagues to forget that there’s a House of Representatives that has to also agree on all of these pieces,” Jayapal warned as we spoke after the meeting.

Many of Jayapal’s colleagues have been even more pointed in their criticisms. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said on a private call this week that the “whole thing falling apart is probably the best thing” that could happen to the Senate’s work, Politico reported. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.) bluntly described the Senate’s efforts as “bullshit” on that same call. 

There’s long been a rivalry between Congress’s upper and lower chambers over which should take the lead on drafting bills. But at this moment, the angst is particularly acute. Congress is rushing to deliver on Biden’s ambitious economic agenda. And in the House, lawmakers are starting to worry that the Senate’s moderating effects will limit the ambition of what might be their one shot at a lasting, progressive legacy.

“We don’t want our Senate colleagues to forget that there’s a House of Representatives that has to also agree on all of these pieces.”

Some of these dynamics are by design. Late last month, a small, bipartisan group of moderate senators struck a deal with the White House on $579 billion in infrastructure spending. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) welcomed the announcement with one of her own: The House would not take up the bipartisan deal unless it arrived in her chamber alongside a budget bill, a legislative vehicle for more sweeping spending that can pass with only Democratic votes. That volleyed work back to the Senate, where a “mod squad” of bipartisan senators have been hashing what, exactly, is in that $579 billion deal, while Democrats on the Senate budget committee flesh out a $3.5 trillion reconciliation package.

The details on what’s actually in either of these deals have been scant. “I haven’t seen the bipartisan deal, other than I’ve heard it talked about,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) told me Tuesday. Jayapal complained that she’s “still trying to assess what’s in the climate piece, because it’s just not clear.”  

What they have heard, they don’t particularly like. Much of the bipartisan infrastructure bill is being built upon legislation that passed out of various Senate committees earlier this year—ignoring the infrastructure bill the House already passed. Those bills include provisions that irk progressives, such as rollbacks to what’s called the “Magna Carta” of American environmental laws at a time when most in the party want to see even stricter rules on the books. “That really shocked me,” Chu said of those measures. “We don’t want an infrastructure bill that is worse for the environment.”

One source close to the Senate negotiations dismissed the House lawmakers’ complaints as crocodile tears. The negotiations were always going to favor the Senate, this source explained: Biden was hankering to cut a deal with GOP lawmakers, and that could only happen in the evenly split Senate. DeFazio, whose committee is overseeing the House’s infrastructure bill, was asked to join Senate negotiations earlier this spring, the source says. DeFazio—then in the process of bringing the House’s infrastructure bill to a vote—declined, saying he wanted to sort out the differences between the chambers in conference once the Senate determined its own deal. (A spokesperson for DeFazio explains the House chair was never invited to sit down with Senate Republicans, but instead encouraged to work with Senate leadership on an infrastructure package distinct from what the House was already working on.)

That House infrastructure legislation included more than $20 billion in funding for “member projects,” known colloquially as “earmarks,” which Democrats brought back during this session of Congress. These earmarks amount to pork for districts back home: Money for local projects that would otherwise go unfunded. And that may be what irritates House members most of all. As the Senate crafts its iteration, it threatens to leave those earmarks behind—and “defeats the purpose” of the work House members put into crafting their own package, Chu explains. 

That Senate deal now teeters on the brink of collapse as lawmakers continue to quarrel over how to pay for it all. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has scheduled a procedural vote on the bipartisan measure for Wednesday, an effort to encourage lawmakers to resolve their differences with a deadline. (The vote is expected to fail, and lawmakers are expected to continue negotiations into the weekend—but not much beyond that.) 

If the deal survives and passes out of the Senate, all eyes will be on the House to see if these complaints translate into action. While most of the national focus has been on the Democrats’ razor-thin margin in the Senate, things aren’t much better in Pelosi’s caucus, where the nine-member Democratic majority could easily crumble if a handful of Democrats decide to vote against the bill. Moderate House Democrats are urging Pelosi to immediately hold a vote for the bipartisan package as soon as it passes the Senate, while progressives aim to hold the speaker to her earlier promise that it only gets a vote once the Senate passes the budget reconciliation bill.

So far, progressives have not stood in the way of legislation they disagree with, but Jayapal didn’t take that off the table. “If Republicans start taking the bipartisan bill and…put bad things in there—in order to get more Republicans—then we will lose Democrats,” Jayapal said. 

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