Mother Jones Magazine

Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill Is Poised to Become Law

The Florida state Senate voted Tuesday to approve a bill that would ban discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade classrooms. The bill, having already passed in the state House of Representatives, now heads to the desk of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to sign it into law.

Most of the bill is innocuous fluff, outlining parents’ rights to access their students’ medical records. This buries the offending bit, which reads:

Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.

DeSantis has been very upset that people are calling the bill “Don’t Say Gay.” But how else would you describe the effect of the above clause?

The bill also specifies how parents may bring a lawsuit against the school district if they believe their rights have been violated. Critics fear that the vagueness of the phrase “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate” could lead to superfluous lawsuits while creating uncertainty for students and teachers of all grade levels about how much discussion of LGBTQ issues the law permits.

Christina Pushaw, DeSantis’ press secretary, has been tweeting her defense of the bill non-stop. This weekend, she caused an uproar among liberals when she referred to the legislation as the “Anti-Grooming Bill,” implying that discussions of gender identity or sexual orientation with kids were tantamount to child abuse. “If you’re against the anti-Grooming bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4- to 8-year-old children,” she wrote. “Silence is complicity. This is how it works, Democrats, and I didn’t make the rules.” (Please read my colleague Ali Breland’s fantastic essay on why right-wingers are obsessed with pedophilia.)

This is just the latest in a series of Republican-backed “culture war” bills that seek to legislate problems that don’t exist. While health care consistently ranks among the top issues for Florida’s aging populace, DeSantis & co. continue stoking the flames of issues that matter only to Twitter addicts, to no one’s benefit.

“They Never Had So Many People to Arrest”: Inside Russia’s Anti-Putin Protests

On a sunny 30-degree Sunday, February 27, Svyatoslav Blokhin, a 24-year-old software developer, saw messages on Telegram channels that protests in Moscow would be starting at 4 p.m.

Blokhin had first joined in the demonstrations on February 24, when the invasion started. On that first day, he didn’t know when or where people were meeting, but he says that his heart called him to participate. “I expected other people to be on the streets,” he told me, “and they were on the streets.”

On that Sunday, Blokhin had started at a different location from the rest of the group to decrease the risk of getting detained by the police. He joined a group of people who had gathered on Novy Arbat Street, a major artery lined with high-rise offices and shopping centers. Blokhin and his wife fell in with a column of hundreds of people, some of them holding homemade signs with slogans like “Putin is a murderer,” and “Freedom for Ukraine.” They marched down the narrow Bolshoi Afanasyevski Lane to the golden-domed Cathedral of Christ the Savior, chanting “net voine,” which means “no to war,” as well as some more profane chants about Russia’s president. “There is a word ‘hooey’ in Russian, which literally translates as a ‘dick,’” Blokhin explained somewhat apologetically. “But in Russian, it sounds more brutal and more aggressive, as do all the swear words in Russian, I guess.”

At the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the demonstrators ran into groups of Moscow police and Russian National guards, or Rosgvardiya, who started to charge and catch people, subduing them with batons. Blokhin got out of the way, joining around 350 people who crossed a bridge toward Gorky Park. From the bridge, he saw buses of police rolling in, about 1,000 according to Blokhin’s estimate. Being so outnumbered, Blokhin and his wife’s only option was to escape. “I’m angry. I’m scared, of course, and I’m nervous. But the main feeling is anger, and I want other people to join protesters on the streets.” he says. “Some people have done posts against war and Putin, but I also feel that it’s not enough. They are not listening to people on social media.” 

“I’m angry. I’m scared, of course, and I’m nervous. But the main feeling is anger, and I want other people to join protesters on the streets.”

After protesting nearly every day in addition to working full-time, he was exhausted when I caught up with him on Tuesday, but he says protesting is the only way to induce change. “I feel very sad about this situation,” he says. “We should show them that strong young Russians disagree with Putin’s politics and call other people to join.”

Strict suppression of the media has made it difficult to ascertain how the invasion has been playing in Russia, where Putin has framed it as a rescue mission to save Russian speakers from Ukrainian neo-Nazis and drug dealers. Yet even when the reprisals for speaking out are severe, the attack on Ukraine has prompted an unusual surge of outrage and acts of civil disobedience. Thousands, mostly young people in their 20s and 30s but also a few families, have taken to the streets in cities across the country to demonstrate for peace. So far about 13,000 people have been arrested in about 150 Russian cities for protesting since the start of Russia’s attacks on Ukraine. Sunday, March 6, was the largest day of protests and arrests yet. Nearly 5,000 people were detained in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and 66 other Russian cities. Most people face about 15 to 30 days in prison depending on how many times they’ve been caught at demonstrations before, but those who have been caught three times in a year may be sent to prison for up to five years. 

Overwhelmed prisons, word bans, and police on every corner.@mollyfication reports from inside Putin’s full-blown crackdown on dissent:

— Mother Jones (@MotherJones) March 8, 2022

Nikita Stoopin, 22, attended the protests in Pushkinskaya Square on February 24, the first day of the widespread invasion. The next day he was leaving a friend’s house when a car pulled up opposite the entrance and two people got out. 

“They introduced themselves as criminal investigation officers and told me that I needed to go with them,” says Stoopin. “If I had run away, I could have been charged with another article that provides for up to 15 days of arrest, because of my disobedience to the lawful request of a police officer.” 

Police crack down on a protest near Manezhnaya Square in Moscow.

Alexander Miridonov/Kommersant/Sipa USA/AP

Stoopin had violated Article 20.2 of Russia’s Code of Administrative Offenses for posting on social media that people should follow a news channel that was covering the protests in Pushkinskaya Square. While in detention at the police station, his phone was taken away, so he wasn’t able to tell his friends or family where he was. He tried to look at the positive, which is that the people sitting next to him in detention were very nice. “In principle, in Putin’s Russia,” he explains, “in Putin’s Russia only nice people are arrested.” 

“There was a lot of information in foreign media that Russia will attack Ukraine, and we are like, are you crazy? It can’t be real, never.” 

Stoopin was in jail for five days and, during that time, he and his fellow detainees were listening to Echo of Moscow, on a Cold War independent news station, to get news from the outside world. On his last evening in detention, they heard that the Prosecutor General’s office would be blocking access to Echo of Moscow’s website and social media accounts. “And literally when they were telling it, the broadcast suddenly stopped,” says Stoopin. Later he learned that Echo of Moscow’s radio station and website had been shut down—along with other such independent news outlets as TV Rain. As Masha Gessen reported in the New Yorker, “Both media outlets were guilty of violating a ban on calling the war a war, the invasion an invasion, and the aggression aggression.”

Protests have also emerged from other, less radical quarters. More than 1.5 million people and organizations have signed a petition against the war, and doctors, nurses, and paramedics numbering more than 1,000 signed an open letter to Putin asking to end the war. “Everyone will scream in pain in the same language,” they wrote. The contemporary art museum Garage suspended any exhibits until the “human and political tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine has ceased.” Over 17,000 Russians working in the arts and culture sector signed an open letter, saying “everything that has been done culturally over the past 30 years is now at risk.” 

In #StPetersburg, #Russia, the police detained a well-known survivor of the Siege of Leningrad Yelena Osipova at an anti-war #protest:

— Alex Kokcharov (@AlexKokcharov) March 2, 2022

Prominent Russians, from the Pulitzer Prize–winning editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta Dmitry Muratov to the popular rapper Oxxxymiron, have spoken out against the war. Even the oligarchs Oleg Deripaska and Mikhail Fridman broke their silence and made statements protesting the Russian incursion. There has been an outpouring of support for Ukraine on social media, with people adding frames to their profile pictures that say: “I am against the attacks on Ukraine.”

In response, the Russian government has enacted a full-blown crackdown on dissent. They have outlawed the use of the words for “war” and “invasion,” perpetrated DDoS attacks on news sites, and blocked access to social media like Twitter and Facebook. The state propaganda outlets, which had already pushed constant anti-Ukraine messaging since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, have gone into overdrive, adding more time slots for their propagandistic talk shows and claiming that Ukrainians are using their guns on each other, that Russian troops are carrying out a necessary humanitarian mission, and that the Americans are in charge of Ukraine’s units. 

Artyom Sheynin, host of Russian propaganda talk show Vremya Pokazhet:

"The Ukrainian authorities – I suppose still formally the authorities of Ukraine – are in fact waging war with their own population in cities where there are no Russian troops, first and foremost in Kyiv"

— Francis Scarr (@francska1) February 26, 2022

“We are shocked,” says Maria, 25, who is using a fake name to protect herself from years in prison by the Russian authorities for the crime of spreading fake news about the Russian army. She was originally going to use her name when she was talking to me, but then the Russian government came out with a new law that said anyone who spreads “fake news” about the Russian army—which includes using the words “war” and “invasion” to describe what’s happening in Ukraine—can spend 10 to 15 years in jail. “There was a lot of information in foreign media that Russia will attack Ukraine, and we are like, are you crazy? It can’t be real, never.” 

February 24 was the day that ended any guessing about why 190,000 Russian military personnel were lined up along the border with Ukraine. The night before, Putin had recognized Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine as independent so-called people’s republics. At 6 o’clock the next morning, he announced that he had “made the decision of a military operation,” and explosions started going off in cities across the country. More than ten days after the invasion began, UNHCR recorded that 364 civilians in Ukraine have been killed and 759 injured. It has been impossible to estimate the number of Russian soldiers killed because the Russian government is actively suppressing the numbers. At one point last week, the Russian Defense Ministry said that 498 Russian soldiers had been killed, while Ukraine’s military says that the number is closer to 11,000 Russian troops

Protesters were detained and crowded in a police wagon.

Alexander Miridonov/Kommersant/Sipa USA/AP

Russian shelling in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, Kramatorsk, and Mariupol have razed buildings and left these populated cities strewn with rubble, and the city of Kherson near Crimea has fallen. There is a surging refugee crisis in Lviv as displaced Ukrainians flee toward the border with Poland. One week after the invasion began, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees estimated that more than 1.5 million have already left Ukraine.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Maria says, “On every street, every five meters there is a policeman who stops us.” Ten of her friends have already been arrested. She has been to two demonstrations in Moscow, which she says have been relatively subdued, partly because all of the experienced organizers in Russia, like opposition-blogger Alexei Navalny and Open Russia founder Andrei Pivovarov, are in jail. Others, like Lyubov Sobol who is a former opposition politician, have stayed out of jail by fleeing the country earlier this year. But even from prison, last week Navalny released a remarkable Twitter thread about the leadership. 

1/16 Yesterday I watched the “session of the Security Council”, this gathering of dotards and thieves (it seems to me that our Anti-Corruption Foundation has done investigations into the corruption of every single one of them).

— Alexey Navalny (@navalny) February 22, 2022

“We don’t have leaders,” says Maria. “We [find out about] a march in some chats and groups, and they can change location. It is not well-organized.”

“To be honest, there were many more at the rallies organized by Alexei Navalny,” says Stoopin, referring to previous pro-democracy rallies. “But in this case, the rallies were, let’s say, not high but wide. There were more of them. They are still continuing even today.”

“The reason why these protests are not super organized is because last year Russian authorities completely destroyed civil society.”

Since police have closed off central gathering places, like Pushkinskaya Square and Red Square in Moscow, or Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg, meeting locations are scattered and spontaneous. They are decided on in Telegram chats and shared in Instagram stories, an act which is punishable by 10 to 30 days in prison. “Police are putting twenty people in spaces where three people can sleep, so people have to stand all night,” says Kuznetsova, who describes the situation at police stations as a humanitarian crisis. “They never had so many people to arrest, so they don’t have space.”

In an OVD-Info timeline of protests and arrests in Russia, the organization estimates that the “scale of rallies is approaching a record since Putin came to power.”

But this decentralized, disorganized form of protesting does have some advantages. “If you arrest an organizer, no one can say when the next protest will be,” explains Maria Kuznetsova, the Press-Secretary of OVD-Info, a human rights organization that defends the right to assembly by helping get arrested protesters out of prison. “But because now there is no organizer, [the authorities] don’t know how to deal with that.” 

Beleaguered by over 10 years of progressively harsher penalties, Russian people have fewer and fewer ways to dissent. In December 2011, the massive protests in Bolotnaya Square following Putin’s fraudulent reelection brought out tens of thousands of people. Last year, Navalny’s organization spawned protests in cities across Russia after the dissident was poisoned and then detained in Russia. Over the last year, the official crackdown cranked into overdrive, starting with the arrest of Navalny, the closure of news agencies and human rights organizations like Memorial, and the spree of accusing journalists and NGOs of being foreign agents. 

“The reason why these protests are not super organized is because last year Russian authorities completely destroyed civil society,” says Kuznetsova. “Because of this crackdown on civil society, we don’t have as big protests as we could have. There is no one left in Russia who can do that anymore.”  

A demonstrator holds a sign reading “No War in Ukraine, Putin Stop” at the grave of the unknown soldier near the Kremlin wall in Moscow.

Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg/Getty

Russia’s actions have resulted in a swift severing of ties with the West. The EU, the US, and the UK have implemented unprecedentedly severe sanctions on Russian banks, institutions, and individuals, including Putin himself. Air spaces across Europe have been closed to flights from Russia. Western companies, from Apple to Netflix, from BP to General Motors, are cutting ties with Russia and divesting from investments in Russian companies. As a result, the ruble has plummeted and Russian markets have been sent into free fall. Russians running to the ATMs, buying dollars, and buying flight tickets out of Russia through Istanbul. Russia’s Central Bank just introduced a 30 percent commission on the purchase of dollars, euros, and pounds on the stock exchange.

The social instability in Russia is likely to lead to more demonstrations. “There are many many little things that grow into one big lump of discontent,” says Stupin. “I think that yes, people will come out in greater numbers, even those who have not come out before.”

It has been reported that Russia’s Federation Council plans to hold a meeting during which it is expected the council will impose anti-crisis laws, or even martial law. The latest Levada poll, taken before the invasion, showed that Putin’s popularity held strong at 71 percent, with 52 percent thinking Russia is moving in the right direction. Whether he loses that support in the aftermath of his campaign in Ukraine remains to be seen.

For the young Russians going out into the streets, the idea that a majority of their country supports Putin seems unfathomable. “The Russian population mostly does not want any war, and we’re doing basically all we can to let the whole world know it,” says Stoopin. “Some Russians indeed think war is needed, but they’re just watching way too much TV.”

“People who were against the regime are still against the regime, and people who were ‘a-political’ before think they’re being brave by posting ‘no to war’ on Instagram,”

But like so many of us, Stoopin lives in a bubble. Michael Wasiura is an American journalist who has had an inside look at the Russian domestic propaganda machines. For the past five years, he worked as a guest host on aggressively patriotic talk shows on Russian state TV, where his job was to represent the “liberal American” viewpoint. He says that any outrage at the war among the pro-Putin factions was short-lived. Based on observations among his extended family and social circles in Russia, he noticed that some people who support the regime came out briefly against the war, but they’ve mostly fallen in line. Now they range from patriotic supporters of the “denazification” of Ukraine to politically apathetic. 

“People who were against the regime are still against the regime, and people who were ‘a-political’ before think they’re being brave by posting ‘no to war’ on Instagram,” Wasiura says. “Even in Moscow’s upper-middle-class circles, there’s still plenty of outright support for the invasion.” Wasiura also points out that the economic stress that many Russians are sure to experience in the coming months may only serve to reinforce the victim mentality that Putin has promoted vis-a-vis Russia and the West. 

“The overwhelming majority of Russians,” he says, “is prepared to blame their sudden poverty on anyone other than their own leaders.”

Young Russians like Blokhin never experienced life in the Soviet Union, never witnessed the gulags and the repression. But now as the international isolation and internal repression has increased, his vision of the future has to contend with these problems of the not-so-distant past. “I don’t want our country to be isolated. I don’t want our country to be violent. I don’t want our country to be not attractive to other countries,” says Blokhin. “But it’s what’s happening. And we share responsibility for what is happening in Ukraine.”

In Major Escalation, Biden to Ban Imports of Russian Oil

President Joe Biden is set to announce a ban on US imports of Russian oil, several news outlets reported Tuesday morning. The move comes as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters its thirteenth day and Western nations continue to look for ways to pressure Russian leader Vladimir Putin economically. 

Since Putin first ordered the invasion, the United States and its European allies have sanctioned various Russian oligarchs, including Putin personally, while significantly limiting Russia’s access to international banks. The accumulated measures have made Russia the most sanctioned country in the world, but have failed to halt Putin’s brutal attack on Ukraine. 

A ban on importing Russian oil marks one of Biden’s toughest responses by during the crisis, especially as gas prices in the United States have increased. Unlike Europe, the US only imports a small amount of its oil from Russia—roughly 7.9 percent, per the Wall Street Journal, though the figure has increased sharply since the end of the Cold War. 

The Biden administration has already made use of emergency fuel reserves and has even resorted to negotiating with heavily-sanctioned adversaries like Iran and Venezuela to acquire more oil. Among the other options being considered by the White House, according to the Washington Post:

…the massive scaling up of production of “heat pumps” for Europe, an additional release of U.S. oil reserves, and a gas tax holiday to protect American consumers, according to people familiar with the matter.

Biden is expected to announce this decision later today. We’ll update this post with his remarks and details of the ban.

Six Lifestyle Changes To Reduce Your Carbon Emissions

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

Research shows that people in wealthier, high-consuming countries can help avert climate breakdown by making six relatively straightforward lifestyle changes, creating a society of “less stuff and more joy.”

Experts say if enacted these “shifts” would account for a quarter of the required emissions reductions needed to keep the global heating down to 1.5 C and increase pressure on government and the private sector to make the necessary far-reaching systemic change.

The research has inspired the Jump campaign, urging people to sign up to make the changes. Tom Bailey, one of its co-founders, said if pledging to make all six shifts is too daunting, just making a start on some of them can make a difference.

1. Quit e-wasting

Keep electronic products—smartphones, personal computers, smartwatches, and TVs—for at least seven years. “The addiction to gadgets and buying ‘stuff’ in general is a major contributor to carbon emissions,” according to the report.

The process of extracting rare earth metals and producing ever more products often generates more emissions than using the items themselves, the study shows. For example, only 13 percent of an iPhone 11’s lifetime emissions are down to its use; the other 86 percent are associated with its production, transport and end-of-life processing.

“We typically replace these products for an upgraded model at least every couple of years,” says Bailey. “The target is to keep electronic products for five to seven years—their full optimum lifetime.”

He says people should try repairing equipment, borrowing, renting or buying second hand, adding: “If you really need something then keep new items to a minimum.”

2. Ditch private cars (if possible)

Many people have become accustomed to owning a car and for some their vehicle is essential either for work or because they are disabled or live in a remote area.

But car ownership is driving huge emissions, the research shows. Globally, transport is responsible for about a quarter of overall greenhouse gas emissions, and more than two-thirds of this comes from the engines of road vehicles.

Campaigners are calling on those who can to stop using private vehicles—ideally getting rid of any they own—and to turn instead to public transport, walking, cycling, or carpools. “If you were planning on buying a car, see if you can hold off and find alternatives which can get you where you need to go,” said Bailey. “If you are feeling brave, get rid of the car/s you have, or see if you can join a car-sharing scheme to share the benefit—and the emissions.”

The study says that although there is a lot of emphasis on the role of electric vehicles in tackling climate change, a bigger effort needs to go towards reducing the number of cars on the road overall as a significant source of emissions is in the manufacture of vehicles—even EVs.

3. Dress retro

The clothing and textiles industry accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than international aviation and shipping combined and the rise of fast, disposable fashion is accelerating that trend. “Lower prices often means poorer quality clothes that don’t last as long,” Bailey said. “But these low prices have also resulted from unseen human and environmental costs such as pollution of rivers, poor working conditions, low wages and exploitation of workers in factories.”

Campaigners are therefore urging people to buy second hand, repair or adjust existing items and restrict purchases to three items a year—ideally ones that are durable and will last.

Bailey said: “These clothes might be more expensive, but it is worth considering the cost per wear. If it will last three times as long but is only double the price, that’s a financial saving over the lifetime of the item and better for the environment too.”

4. Eat greener

More than 25 percent of total global emissions come from the food system and today’s research shows there are three changes to diet that would dramatically reduce the impact of the food we eat:

  • Move to a mostly plant-based diet.
  • Eat everything you buy.
  • Eat healthy amounts.

Bailey said: “Changing our behaviors around food is the most impactful of all the shifts. And it’s not just about climate change; if you look at biodiversity loss, land use change, fertilizers in the ocean creating dead zones and the massive extinction and loss of insects due to pesticides, these problems are all driven by food.

5. Fly infrequently

Aviation contributes to about 2 percent of overall global emissions and this figure is increasing more than any other form of transport. Flying is also highly unequal: In the UK, 70 percent of all flights are taken by just 15 percent of the population.

The research found the global average number of flights per person in 2017 was one short-haul round trip every one to two years. Experts say halving this number—committing to one short-haul round trip every three years or one long-haul round trip every eight years—would have a huge impact.

Bailey said: “We can still see the world: flying abroad 15 to 20 times over a lifetime, or travelling more slowly overland to different places. But we need to get realistic about the impact of weekend city breaks abroad. Why not visit all the incredible places we have closer to home?”

The report suggests choosing holiday destinations closer to home that you can access by train, ferry or bus. It also advocates making use of technology such as video calls to keep in touch with family and friends.

6. Fight the power

The actions outlined above can lead to huge reductions in global emissions—25 percent of that required to keep to 1.5 C of warming—but the research is also clear that the bulk of reductions will come from systemic change made by governments and the private sector. To help transform the system campaigners are calling for people to make at least one change in their own lives. Ideas include:

  • Changing to a green energy supplier.
  • For those who can afford it, installing energy efficiency measures at home such as insulation and heat pumps.
  • Shifting assets into green investments.
  • Using ethical and green banks.
  • Using energy efficiently at home.
  • Pushing for change through activism or peaceful protest or writing to your representative.

Bailey says: “This shift is different to the others because the research doesn’t imply that individuals are responsible for changing global systems. However, we know that personal shifts to our own lives can, collectively, have a massive impact.”

One More Thing to Worry About: Putin May Be Paving the Way to Use Chemical Weapons in Ukraine

It is difficult to imagine ways for the Russian invasion of Ukraine to get worse, but Vladimir Putin is giving us new reasons to try. After putting Russian nuclear forces on “special alert” last week, Putin’s government has repeatedly accused the United States of storing biological weapons in Ukraine, part of a disinformation campaign that could presage Russia’s own use of these illegal weapons of war. 

Russia signed treaties banning the use of biological and chemical weapons—in 1975 and 1997, respectively—but has maintained covert programs in apparent defiance of those agreements. Despite destroying most of its Cold War–era stockpile of chemical weapons by 2017, Russian military operatives used a nerve agent to kill Sergei Skripa, a Russian spy who had become a double agent for Great Britain, and his daughter in 2018. Russia used the same nerve agent in 2020 to poison Putin opponent Aleksei Navalny. (Navalny survived but is now in a Russian prison.) During the civil war in Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s forces, which were backed by Russia, used chlorine gas, sarin, and mustard gas against rebel fighters.

Assad’s use of chemical weapons, which President Barack Obama famously said would constitute a “red line” for the United States, did not dislodge him from power, nor did it trigger US intervention. But it did lead to a massive, coordinated effort with Russia to eliminate Assad’s stockpile. Key to that initiative was a Pentagon official named Andrew Weber, who over a three-decade career in government has worked in Eurasian states like Kazakhstan and Georgia to remove nuclear material. 

Weber, now a senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks, believes the Russian Foreign Ministry’s recent statements, including a tweet accusing the Pentagon of funding biological weapons’ development in Ukraine, are “almost a mirror image” of the disinformation tactics used in Syria, where Russia blamed Assad’s actions on the rebels. (The Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute concluded in 2019 that Assad was responsible for 98 percent of the chemical weapons used in the Syrian Civil War with ISIS culpable for the other 2 percent.) “The audience for that is partly the Russian population as a way for them to demonize Ukrainians,” Weber notes, “and as a way to build support for the war inside Russia.”

The steady stream of Russian disinformation about the United States building bioweapons in Ukraine has sparked fears among experts that Putin is creating a pretext to deploy these weapons himself. “It’s plausible that Putin will use nuclear weapons in this conflict,” Weber told me. “I think it’s more likely that he would use chemical or biological weapons.” 

Over the course of our conversation on Monday, Weber and I discussed the roots of Russia’s disinformation campaign, why chemical weapons might be one of Putin’s options in Ukraine, and how to properly assess the threat of escalation as the conflict continues.

Is there any basis to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement at the United Nations last week that the United States was developing biological materials” in Ukraine?

The Russian intelligence services have had a disinformation campaign for about 15 years accusing the United States of funding biological weapons laboratories in the countries surrounding Russia. It’s similar to the KGB fabrication that HIV/AIDS originated in a US military laboratory. The intent of this campaign has been to counter US influence, especially in the so-called “near abroad” of Russia [a term used by Russia to refer to its neighboring countries]. 

What’s changed in recent months is that it’s gone from a disinformation campaign that used journalists in Bulgaria and plants of articles and social media, to becoming the official Russian government line. Before it was just indirectly through their intelligence services that they were spreading these lies, but now it’s risen up to the official level, to the point where the 5,000-word manifesto that President Putin and President Xi released during Putin’s visit to the Olympics accuses the United States of investing in biological weapons’ laboratories all around the world. 

Before it was just indirectly through their intelligence services that they were spreading these lies, but now it’s risen up to the official level.

Only yesterday, I saw the Russian Foreign Ministry tweet that it had “evidence” of a biological weapons program in Ukraine that was funded by the Pentagon. 

Right, so there’s been an escalation. In the run-up to their attack on Ukraine, they started planting more articles and making more outrageous statements, including the one yesterday that says there was a campaign to destroy the evidence.

That’s not it at all. These laboratories are by and large Ukrainian Ministry of Health laboratories. They’re more or less equivalent to US county health laboratories. They played a very important role in stemming Covid. But some of these laboratories do have what we call “select agent” or dangerous pathogen collections for the legitimate purposes of tracking bacteria and viruses that are endemic in Ukraine. Out of fear of Russian military attacks, they made a decision to destroy these pathogen collections on a defensive basis, so they were not spread into the environment or stolen by the Russian invaders.

Russia’s chemical weapons stockpile was supposedly destroyed by 2017, but in recent years, they’ve used nerve agents to target dissidents or Putin rivals. Is Russia no longer in compliance with the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention? 

Those recent uses of advanced chemical weapons in assassinations are a flagrant violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Russia did destroy safely—with US assistance—its declared chemical weapons stockpile that was inherited from the Cold War, but clearly, they retained a smaller scale ability to produce and use chemical weapons, which is a flagrant violation of the convention.

Russia has done this in smaller, more targeted ways. Do they have the capacity to use chemical weapons in a large-scale way in Ukraine?

Yes. For example, the perfume bottle that was recovered out of a dumpster in Salisbury [where Skripa, the British double agent, and his daughter were killed] contained over 10,000 lethal doses of Novichok chemical weapons. They could use one or two operatives to deliver a much larger scale attack with chemical weapons, but they can also deliver biological weapons. Biological weapons are just diseases so it takes maybe four to 10 days for most biological weapons to begin to impact the targets as the onset of disease starts. So they’re easier to get away with in terms of, you know, not getting caught upon release.

I’m concerned that the reason we’re seeing this escalation and propaganda directed at the United States and making false accusations that Ukraine has biological weapons is because that will be a cover for the Russian military’s use of these weapons, and then a false flag operation where they will try to blame it on on Ukraine.

Why would Putin even feel the need to use chemical or biological weapons, given Russia’s incredible conventional military advantage over Ukraine?

In our Western logic, it makes absolutely no sense. But if we look at what the Assad regime did in Syria with chemical weapons, clearly, they see value in inflicting terror on the population. And biological weapons can do that. Chemical weapons can do that by demoralizing the resistance, and also, tactically, for clearing buildings in urban environments. So they saw both a military and psychological warfare utility in employing these terror weapons, specifically, because they cause so much terror in the target population. And if they can blame it on the United States and Ukraine, that’s just gravy.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

He Joined the Attica Prison Uprising. He Hopes a New Documentary Can Set the Record Straight.

“I’ve been patient,” wrote George Jackson from his prison cell in a 1965 letter to his mother and father, “but where I’m concerned patience has its limits. Take it too far, and it’s cowardice.”

In some ways, the story of the Attica prison rebellion—told in the new film Attica, streaming free on Showtime’s Youtube channel and nominated for the Oscar for best documentary feature—begins here, across the country in California, with George Jackson. Jackson was incarcerated in 1960 for petty theft. He spent much of his time served in solitary confinement. And, during his time, he was politicized, and wrote prolifically. In 1970, his writings to the outside world were compiled into Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, a literary classic of the Black Power Movement. 

George Jackson loomed large in the minds of the men nearly 3,000 miles away at New York’s Attica State Prison, who had been organizing during the summer of 1971 to improve their living conditions. From the denial of the basic provisions for personal hygiene to the all-white staff of “Archie Bunker” prison guards who would gang-beat inmates in their cells (more than half of whom were Black), the treatment of the incarcerated men at Attica was torturous.

When, on August 21, 1971, Jackson was killed by correctional officers under mysterious circumstances, it was a tipping point. The day after, a multiracial group of 700 men at Attica put on black armbands and staged a silent hunger strike in the prison mess hall to honor the fallen martyr. Three weeks later, on September 9, their patience had hit its limits. Over 1,000 of them took control of the prison by force, claiming 42 prison guards and staff as hostages. 

What happened next takes up the bulk of Attica. Directed by the revered documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson and first-time director Traci A. Curry, the film uses archival news footage and the stirring recollection of those who lived through the rebellion. Prisoners camped out in Attica’s “D-Yard,” invited in television news crews and elected an ad hoc leadership council that began negotiating with New York State Corrections Commissioner Russell Oswald. On the fifth day, New York State Police retook the prison in a massacre of tear gas and machine gun fire, killing 29 of the inmates and nine of the hostages. Initially, prison officials said that the inmates slit the hostages throats; autopsies revealed they died of gunshot wounds. For many of the surviving Attica brothers, the film is an opportunity to set the record straight. The spark that lit the Attica rebellion was not just a response to dehumanizing conditions, but was bound up with the urban uprisings and radical politics of late 1960s and ’70s. The state’s spectacularly violent response was also a reaction to shifting political terrain, a harbinger of the next fifty years of punitive politics.

The film’s story isn’t just about a single prison uprising, but how our current politics of law and order was consecrated. This event could have served as a wakeup call to usher in an era of transformative prison reform. Instead, it was the opening salvo to a world-historic prison buildup. In 1971 there were 300,000 people incarcerated in the United States. As of 2019, there were over 6 million people in the United States living under some kind of correctional supervision. 

I spoke with Stanley Nelson and Traci A. Curry as well as a participant in the Attica rebellion and the film, Arthur “Bobby” Harrison, about what they hoped to achieve with the film, the new insights it brings to the public’s understanding of what happened at Attica, and the historical parallels today. Nowadays, Harrison lives in Syracuse, New York, where he coaches and mentors young men. This interview has been edited and condensed.

So I’m closer to Traci’s age and I first heard the word Attica in the Nas song, “If I Ruled the World.” I’m wondering what brought each of you to this project with your different generational understandings of Attica?

Traci A. Curry, co-director: Actually you just jogged my memory. This is the first time I thought about the Nas song. I did know that song, but I also knew Dog Day Afternoon, and wasn’t sure why this particular place had any resonance beyond their mention in those moments. When I started looking into it and understanding what the story was all about, one of the first things that I came across was the McKay Commission, a civilian commission that came together to investigate what happened after September 13th. And one of the conclusions that they reached was that what happened on the 13th was the single deadliest day of American state violence against other Americans outside of the Civil War, and obviously, the violence against Indigenous people. I was like, ‘How is it possible that that could be true, but that I don’t know about this?’ I consider myself a pretty well-versed person in American history, and particularly where stories with race and injustice are concerned. And so that let me know that this was a story that I had to be a part of telling.

“What happened on the 13th was the single deadliest day of American state violence against other Americans outside of the Civil War, and obviously, the violence against Indigenous people.”

Stanley Nelson, co-director: I thought about making a film about Attica for a long time. For 20 or 30 years, I had it in the back of my head. I thought there was so much about Attica that we didn’t know. I wanted to make a film about criminal justice, and about the prison system. But so many of the films that I saw about the prison system are following one person, one person’s trauma, and after you see those films you think ‘that person really got a raw deal.’ It doesn’t stick with you that the whole prison system is messed up. And so I think this was a chance to talk more about the bigger picture. 

Mr. Harrison, when you were approached to participate in the film, what were the misconceptions or things that you wanted to really get across that you felt like people didn’t understand about Attica?

Arthur Harrison, Attica Brother: When I first heard about it I thought it was just going to be another BS conversation about prisons, not being truthful about things. I met Traci and she made me believe that she had the truth about what happened. Because what happened at Attica never came to the forefront. Everybody believed that the prisoners were one hundred percent wrong. All we wanted was to be treated like human beings. It hurts every time I talk about it but this is the only kind of therapy I’ve ever got after being released from Attica. I never got sent to a psychiatrist to talk about the mental effect that it had on me. When I speak, I don’t speak for me, I speak for those who are not here anymore, or those who weren’t able to speak for themselves. We weren’t treated like human beings. We were treated like beasts. And it hurts. 

Can you talk more about what motivated those in Attica to rise up? 

Harrison: It started with how the penal system would treat people who look like me a whole lot differently than they would treat a brother that looks like yourself. The system doesn’t treat people who look like me like we’re people. That’s not only when you’re locked up in prisons, but it is there more so, because when you’re in prison you don’t have anyone to protect you. In prison, they really show you what happened in Africa with that apartheid stuff. It’s the same type of thing, where people just hate people because of the color of their skin. When this thing occurred that particular day, we started hearing these guys hollering and yelling and screaming. I assumed it was gonna be a thing where it was the guards versus us guys, and we’d fight and get bloody noses and black eyes. I assumed after that everyone would politely go back to their cells. But it wasn’t like that. Everybody wound up in the D block yard. It became something bigger than we ever thought it would be. Because the news people start coming in. And as we speak today, I know that it is. I feel that I’ve been left here on this earth to tell my version about what happened to other brothers that were there at that time. 

The film also shows that the dehumanizing living conditions of men incarcerated in Attica overlapped with the political and social context of the late ’60s, from the influence of the Black Panthers to George Jackson to the Attica liberation faction that had been organizing in the prison. How did those specific conditions of Attica combine with the politics of the moment contribute to the uprising at Attica?

Curry: We arrive at this moment in the film as a period at the end of the sentence that was the Civil Rights Movement. It’s this moment where there’s this still-unfinished part of economic justice, and you see that playing out in a lot of the frustrations that fueled uprisings in the cities across the country. Nixon then runs a campaign on a law and order platform—that we have to control this unruly Blackness that is in the streets. It also gives rise to this moment of resistance and rebellion, whether that’s the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, the Weather Underground or Vietnam anti-war protests. All of this is happening outside of the prisons, and although the prisons are by design geographically removed from the population, they’re also connected, because the people from the cities are the folks that are filling the prisons at this time. So, you have people who suddenly have a different understanding of their place within this prison system and a sophisticated analysis about the injustice of the system, rather than their own small part in it. What is remarkable is that because the prisoners had already been doing this work, very quickly, a moment of complete chaos coalesces into this organized political moment, and I think it’s to the credit of the men that were out there that they recognized that opportunity and took advantage and organized around it so quickly.

In prison, they really show you what happened in Africa with that apartheid stuff. It’s the same type of thing, where people just hate people because of the color of their skin.

Harrison: I’d heard about George Jackson before, you know, the brother out there in Soledad prison. He became alive in prison, He found himself. He found George, the man. And he became a threat.

Because he threatened to tell the youth of America, Black youth especially from our neighborhoods, that prisons weren’t a rite of passage for guys who look like us. Prisons are meant to break people like myself. That’s what the riot was about. And when George Jackson died, that was the final straw that broke the so-called camel’s back at that particular time. I thought “if I die, let me die trying to live.” That’s what it came down to. Men wanted to be respected as men, not objects. And those in charge didn’t want to accept that. 

Stanley, I was wondering if you have anything to add about how the prisoners worked together and how the rebellion took on a political character so quickly.

Nelson: Before the rebellion at Attica, the prisoners were purposely kept apart by race. So there was a certain amount of resentment. At the time that George Jackson was murdered, when the prisoners don’t take any food, it was a way to show their solidarity no matter what race you were. That’s one of the fascinating things that happens in the yard after the rebellion is that the white prisoners and Black prisoners all realize that they’re in this thing together, and they have to come together. They’re setting up tents, they’re digging latrines together. They’re making a security detail together. They’re handing out food together, and then negotiating as a group. It’s also amazing given the way prisons are still set up today, with the Black prisoners and the white prisoners being separated. In the film, you see them uniting and they’re talking about it. In many ways they were together and when law enforcement comes in, they’re murdered together. We usually think about it as a problem of the prisoners who self-segregate. I think it’s pretty important that we understand that prisons are set up like that. It’s a matter of divide and conquer. 

So much of this film utilizes the archival media footage because this became a national media event at the time. The Attica Brothers had a lot of media savvy, but the media portrayal  worked for better and for worse. Could you talk about Attica as a media spectacle?

Curry: In a lot of ways the media is everything to this story. The prisoners understood like we say today, ‘pictures or didn’t happen,’ right? There had been people who participated in previous uprisings at Auburn prison that we’re not sitting here and talking about today, because no one saw it. So it was like it didn’t happen. And so those people in Attica were sophisticated enough to understand that the public needs to bear witness to what is happening here. As you see in the film, they demanded not only that the media be let in but they had a television and were watching the coverage. They were able to see who they felt like was actually telling the truth about what happened inside and were able to identify and invite in some of those reporters who you see speaking in the film. But this is also a story about media malpractice. Today, we talk a lot about access journalism and the problems of relying upon a single source, which is what happened when pretty much all of the media, including all of the major media outlets with few exceptions, reported that the hostages had been killed by the prisoners, because one spokesperson from the prison said that. No one bothered asking any more questions, with a notable exception, I’ll say, of John Johnson, the only Black reporter present, who you see in the film. 

“I thought ‘if I die, let me die trying to live.’ That’s what it came down to.”

Harrison: I’m not a church going guy on Sunday. But I see God working in people like Stanley and Traci that did the work to make it possible for people like yourself to hear another side of the story about Attica. Because the world believes that the prisoners had cut these guys’ throats. If I was a normal citizen living in Attica, I would have disliked those guys too, because that would have been one of my family members. I understand that hate. But on the same token, they were told a lie that the guys had cut these guys throats. And if Stanley and Traci hadn’t put this picture together, the lie would still be told. It’s like a slap in the face. You just out and out lied to us about what occurred. To this day I get calls from people who say, “Man we didn’t know you went through all this crap. Now we see why you might be a little indifferent, sometimes a little bit standoffish.”

One of the new pieces of history unearthed in the film is the call between Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon. Stanley, could you talk about the significance of that conversation?

Nelson: We knew there was one call where Nixon was congratulating Rockefeller. He says something like: Was it the Blacks? And then he says: Did any white people get killed? Like, did any real people get killed? It’s insane that that’s the President of the United States talking to the Governor of New York. Once we got that we said: “Well let’s look at Nixon’s phone records.” And we found that other call where Nixon is encouraging Rockefeller not to even go up there to Attica. The Attica Observer Committee wanted Rockefeller just to go and see the environment and see the hostility that’s being built up. Then maybe, you know, he’d think again about whether he wants to send these troops in. But Nixon is in Rockefeller’s ear, and Rockefeller wanted to be president. Rockefeller was thought to be a liberal Republican, but Nixon had just been elected on law and order, and the Republican party started to be the party of law and order. Rockefeller wants them to eventually elect him president, and so he’s got to have a hard line. In many ways, Rockefeller is responsible for what finally happened at Attica. 

“Prisons are meant to break people like myself. That’s what the riot was about.”

In the summer of 2020 I noticed a renewal of people reading George Jackson and more people wanting to learn about Attica and the history of prison activism. So there’s this recent experience with rebellions and then there’s also been a return of tough on crime rhetoric from a lot of politicians. Those are two things I noticed that makes the timing of this film significant. What can the story Attica teach us about our own era? 

Curry: There were so many resonances that I had not anticipated. I think it really crystallized for me when I was making the film. I just happened to live someplace that’s on a protest route here in Brooklyn. As I was inside working on this film, I watched police descend upon a protester and I was horrified at what might be about to happen. It made me realize that, really, this is a story about the length to which the American state will go to reassert its power in the face of a righteous challenge to its authority. I also could not help but notice that we made this film in the early days of a pandemic in which people were left in prison to die. That call for recognition of their humanity resonates across all of these 50 years to today. As time goes on, more resonances continue to happen for me. We’re in this moment where as a matter of policy there is an active effort to erase stories like this. There’s an active effort to make sure these types of stories never get told. I just feel so grateful that this film has this platform to let people hear the voices of people like Mr. Harrison, who is just so courageous in articulating his experience of what happened.