Mother Jones Magazine

Uvalde Community Calls for Gun Control in Heartbreaking Hearing

Just two weeks after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at a Texas elementary school, Uvalde community members—including a doctor, a student survivor, and the parents of a child who died—have come together to plead for Congress to take action on gun control.

“Innocent children all over the country today are dead because laws and policy allow people to buy weapons before they’re legally old enough to even buy a pack of beer.”

Dr. Roy Guerrero, an Uvalde pediatrician, tried to convey the horror of the day to the House Oversight Committee.

“What I did find was something no prayer would ever relieve: two children whose bodies had been pulverized by bullets fired at them, decapitated, whose flesh had been ripped apart, that the only clue to their identities was the blood-spattered cartoon clothes still clinging to them,” he said.

Guerrero said that he became a pediatrician because he admired children’s resilience and willingness to accept change. “Adults are stubborn,” he said. “Why else would there have been such little progress made in Congress to stop gun violence? Innocent children all over the country today are dead because laws and policy allow people to buy weapons before they’re legally old enough to even buy a pack of beer.”

Guerrero criticized one other habit of adults: their affinity for nostalgia. “Once the blood is rinsed away from the bodies of our loved ones and scrubbed off the floors of the schools and supermarkets and churches,” he said, “the carnage from each scene is erased for our collective conscience, and we return again to nostalgia, to the rose-tinted view of our Second Amendment as a perfect instrument of American life, no matter how many lives are lost.”

Miah Cerrillo, a student who survived the massacre, was the next to testify at the hearing via video. Cerrillo made headlines when she described covering herself in her classmate’s blood and playing dead. In her video appearance today, she described the gunman shooting her teacher in the head. Asked if she felt safe at school, Miah shook her head and said, “Because I don’t want it to happen again.”

Miah Cerrillo, the #Uvalde student who smeared blood all over herself during the shooting, says she doesn’t feel safe at school because she doesn’t “want it to happen again”

"Do you think it's going to happen again?"

Miah: -nods-

— philip lewis (@Phil_Lewis_) June 8, 2022

Miah’s father, Miguel Cerrillo, appeared at the hearing and choked back tears as he described how the shooting affected his daughter. “She is not the same little girl that I used to play with, run with, and do everything, because she was Daddy’s little girl,” he said. “I wish something would change, not only for our kids, but every single kid in the world, because schools are not safe anymore.”

Kimberly and Felix Rubio, the parents of 10-year-old Lexi Rubio, who died in the attack, appeared to remember their daughter, who wanted to go to college on a softball scholarship, major in math, and attend law school.

“We understand that for some reason—to some people, to people with money, to people who fund political campaigns—that guns are more important than children,” Kimberly said. She proposed a list of demands: a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, red flag laws, stronger background checks, and an increase in the age to purchase assault rifles in Texas from 18 to 21.

As her husband wiped tears from his eyes, Kimberly concluded, “Somewhere out there, there is a mom listening to our testimony, thinking, ‘I can’t even imagine their pain,’ not knowing that our reality will one day be hers, unless we act now.”

The Assassination Plot Against Brett Kavanaugh Is a National Emergency

Early Wednesday morning, an armed man who had threatened Brett Kavanaugh was arrested near the Supreme Court justice’s Maryland home, according to reports. A law enforcement source told the Associated Press that the suspect “was armed with a gun and a knife” and that he “arrived in a taxi” and told officers he “wanted to kill Kavanaugh.” According to sources cited by the Washington Post, the man was also carrying “burglary tools.” The Post pointed to early evidence suggesting that the man’s motives may have been political:

Two people familiar with the investigation said the initial evidence indicates that the man was angry about the leaked draft of an opinion by the Supreme Court signaling that the court is preparing to overturn Roe. v. Wade, the 49-year-old decision that guaranteed the constitutional right to have an abortion. He was also angry over a recent spate of mass shootings, these people said.

It’s important to keep in mind that these details could change as the story develops. But whatever we ultimately learn, this incident will surely become a flashpoint in any number of raging national debates: gun control, abortion, the rights of protesters, political extremism, just to name a few. A quick glance at Twitter shows that it’s already happening.

The assassination of a justice would be a threat to American democracy every bit as severe as the January 6 insurrection.

It’s not yet clear how close the suspect came to murdering Kavanaugh. I certainly don’t know what policy changes could prevent such a horrific event from occurring in the future or how to balance those measures against Americans’ First and Second Amendment rights.

But I do know this: We apparently just came unacceptably, terrifyingly close to catastrophe. The assassination of a Supreme Court justice would be a personal and national tragedy. But it would be more than that. It would be a threat to American democracy every bit as severe as the January 6 insurrection and Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election. It’s simply impossible to imagine how a high court torn apart by violence could function in a way that Americans accept.

I doubt we will see many people cheering on this crime. That isn’t enough, though. We can’t just condemn this and move on. Everyone, across the ideological spectrum, needs to take this completely seriously and figure out what can be done to prevent the country from plunging into a new era of political violence reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s. The fate of our republic depends on it. 

You Will Totally Believe Which “News” Network Won’t Be Showing the January 6 Hearings Live

On the week of the long-awaited January 6 hearings, America’s top-rated cable news network announced that it wouldn’t carry any of them live. Instead, Fox News will continue to feed its viewers their regular diet of spin from Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, and Tucker Carlson. 

Fox’s hosts “will cover the hearings as news warrants,” the network said Tuesday in a statement to the New York Times

Ingraham expanded on that justification with a laudably candid admission, saying that Fox does “something called, you know, cater to our audience.” 

Earlier this week, Carlson called the hearings “grotesque.” Meanwhile, both Ingraham and Hannity have found themselves caught up in the fallout from the committee’s investigation. In December, the committee released Ingraham’s and Hannity’s communications with Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows on the day of the attack. The texts showed both hosts in a state of panic over what they immediately recognized to be a chilling assault incited by the defeated president.

“[Trump] needs to tell people in the Capitol to go home,” Ingraham begged Meadows. “This is hurting all of us. He is destroying his legacy.”

To give Fox it’s (very small) due, the network isn’t avoiding the hearings entirely—hosts Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum will be covering them live on the lesser-watched Fox Business channel. But the decision to filter one of the largest news stories of the year through the opinions of Ingraham, Carlson, and Hannity cuts quite a contrast to the 1,100 news segments the network ran on the terrorist attack in Benghazi.

As the Washington Post‘s Philip Bump pointed out, this move isn’t exactly unexpected, and Fox has a history of cutting away from live hearings and impeachments at points when information contradicting the network’s narrative seems to emerge. 

The odds were always close to zero that the network would give the hearings the treatment they warrant, and the announcement simply reaffirms that the battle lines over January 6 have already hardened. Republicans have their (completely baseless) narrative: January 6 was a minor scandal at worst and a “tourist visit” at best. The people who stormed the capital chanting “hang Mike Pence” were patriotic Americans—incited or egged on by a loose mix of federal informants and/or antifa operatives—who have since been unfairly persecuted by law enforcement.

Fox has played its part in helping these fabrications take hold. No matter how damning the committee’s findings turn out to be, don’t expect the hearings to shake them loose.

The January 6 Committee Doesn’t Need New “Bombshells.” We Already Know What Happened.

Sometimes one quote sums up a problem perfectly. As the congressional committee investigating January 6 prepared to begin its public hearings, Sunday show host Margaret Brennan of CBS posed a question to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) that encapsulates the political peril for the committee: “If you don’t deliver a bombshell on Thursday, don’t you run the risk of losing the public’s attention here?”

Brennan was channeling a dangerous narrative that has become conventional wisdom, not just for Beltway media types but also among many Democrats: the need for more. A violent coup attempt carried out in plain sight apparently isn’t enough. Donald Trump incited a riot. Several people died. In the run up to that horrific day, Trump plotted firing Justice Department leadership and installing a new attorney general who would help overturn the 2020 election. Trump and his advisers hatched plans to send in fake electors and for the military to seize voting machines. He cajoled election officials to “find 11,780 votes” and pressured the vice president to thwart the electoral count. He used outrageous lies to try to steal an election.

Schiff responded, appropriately, that the public already has bombshells. What Americans need now, he told Brennan, is to understand “how close we came to losing our democracy.”

A violent coup attempt carried out in plain sight apparently isn’t enough.

But Brennan’s question gets at the greatest challenge for the panel: the belief that without even more stunning revelations, the committee will have failed. And Trump and his allies will be exonerated. We’ve seen this before. During special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference in 2016, Republicans—as well as some media and Democrats—argued that without a smoking gun revealing direct collusion between Trump and Vladimir Putin, the whole thing was a partisan witch hunt. That set the bar too high, because Trump’s collusion with Russia didn’t need to include secret communications. He welcomed Russian interference out in the open and received it. The January 6 investigation could meet the same fate.

Though the insurrection certainly began with private attempts to overturn the election—which the committee plans to lay out in hearings this week—much of this failed coup took place in public. To assemble a mob, Trump and his campaign used social media and rallies to publicly gather the faithful in DC. No need for bat signals when they had Twitter. The assault was on federal property; Americans watched on television as the media showed footage of the rioters and eyewitness accounts and video coming from inside the Capitol. We saw the peaceful transition of power halted, learned the vice president was in hiding, and waited for Trump to call off the attack—hours later, when he finally, half-heartedly, did so, he also publicly empathized with the perpetrators. No additional bombshell is needed to appreciate that Trump is the first president in American history to refuse to accept electoral defeat, to attempt to retain power Americans denied him, and to incite a violent attack against Congress. We know what happened, and it happened before our eyes.

“The illegality of the plan was obvious,” US District Court Judge David Carter wrote in a March ruling related to Trump attorney John Eastman’s efforts to get Vice President Mike Pence to reject the electors on January 6. “The Court finds it more likely than not that President Trump corruptly attempted to obstruct the Joint Session of Congress on January 6, 2021,” Carter stated. 

But as bad as the known facts of January 6 and Trump’s attempt to subvert democracy are, the public is constantly being teased with more. The committee, as well as the press, have released tantalizing details over the past few months, hinting at a secret conspiracy that includes GOP-assisted reconnaissance missions, burner phones, and secret State Department meetings. In April, January 6 committee member Rep. Jaime Raskin (D-Md.) promised the upcoming hearings would “really blow the roof off the House” with evidence of collusion between Trump’s inner circle and the Capitol rioters. We have come to expect an overarching order, a neat plot with all its threads and tangents explained.

But the efforts to overturn the election by Trump and his allies were multi-faceted and disorganized. Some were dangerous and illegal; others represented the craziness of the Trump presidency and its disconnect from reality. Imposing the desire for a neat Hollywood ending sets what is likely an unrealistic expectation for a presidency that ended the same way it began: full of chaos and public plots to subvert democracy.

Waiting for new bombshells risks overlooking what we already know. And that helps Trump’s defenders move the goal posts. The defeated president and his allies want you to think January 6 was only bad if some worse conspiracy is revealed. 

Some of this unrealistic expectation-setting comes from the January 6 committee itself. On May 19, the panel’s leaders revived rumors that GOP lawmakers had led rioters on reconnaissance tours through the US Capitol on January 5. They sent a letter to Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.), stating that they had evidence that he had led a tour the day before the attack. The January 6 committee here seems to have exposed as false a claim by an unnamed House Republican staffer that a review of Capitol security footage over 48 hours preceding the attack showed: “There were no tours, no large groups, no one with MAGA hats on.” But that doesn’t mean the committee has evidence of insurrectionists using that tour to scout the Capitol; nor does it suggest that GOP members off Congress knowingly helped the rioters. Yet the letter set the expectation that the committee might be able to prove precisely that.

Other story lines emerging over the last several months pose similar risks. A Rolling Stone report last November revealed that Kylie Kremer, who helped organize the “Save America” rally on January 6, and two of her associates used burner phones to communicate with members of Trump’s inner circle. They appear to have used the phones to organize Trump’s rally on Ellipse—not the ensuing attack on the Capitol. A focus on burner phones fosters the impression that Trump may have been involved in secret machinations, but we already know that he was involved in the January 6 rally; he spoke there for more than an hour. There remains no evidence that the former president or those close to him took part in planning the actual attack on Congress.

Last month, the Washington Post reported that two pro-Trump activists spreading voting machine conspiracy theories met with a State Department official on January 6.

Burner phones and secret meetings sound like scenes from a movie in which all the pieces fit together.

Both revelations are worthy of reporting, but it’s important not to lose site of what they actually mean. Burner phones and secret State Department meetings sound like scenes from a movie in which all the pieces fit together at the end. But in real life, the likely explanation is far less sexy: The Trump administration drew in a number of fringe figures who met up, either by phone or in person, with other fringe figures. These are not likely to be clues that add up to a final, shocking revelation. In all probability, they are disparate, chaotic outgrowths of Trump’s increasing desperation and delusion in the final days of his presidency.

All these plot lines aren’t necessarily germane to the work of the January 6 committee. The panel’s mandate is to investigate the riot as a domestic terrorist attack and a failed coup, to study its causes and the failure to prevent it, so that, as the committee stated in a recent court filing, “no President can threaten the peaceful transition of power ever again.”

The Trump presidency was, among many things, full of wild revelations. Newspapers reported daily on the offensive and dangerous things the president himself said. Sometimes Trump said those things on the record, or in press conferences. Sometimes, the revelations were impeachable offenses, such as the news that Trump withheld security aid from Ukraine in an attempt to extract campaign dirt on Joe Biden. Overall, the Trump administration provided an information overload of gossipy revelations, inundating the American public with one new tidbit after another. In a perverse way, this redounded to Trump’s benefit. The public, especially those who disliked him, became accustomed to more and more, making it harder for the horror of any one incident to sink in. To those who weren’t the targets of Trump’s agenda, the spectatorship could almost take the form of a game.

The ultimate example of this trap was the Russia probe. As Mueller investigated foreign interference in the 2016 election, Republicans argued that nothing short of “collusion” between Trump and the Kremlin would qualify as a scandal. Despite some pushback from Democrats, many Americans held out for a smoking gun, or at least a (non-existent) pee tape. But as our colleague David Corn argued in this magazine, even without proof of explicit collusion, “a harsh verdict can be pronounced: Trump actively and enthusiastically aided and abetted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plot against America. This is the scandal. It already exists—in plain sight.”

That was five years ago. Yet Democrats remain caught in the same expectation-setting trap today. Trump orchestrated the attempt to overturn the election in plain sight. He spread the “Big Lie” that the presidency had been stolen. He promoted a massive DC rally on January 6, and former campaign aides helped plan it. Trump publicly encouraged supporters to attend the event, and then he told them to march on the Capitol. He publicly pressured Pence to throw out electoral votes—something Pence made clear he had no power to do. And Trump delayed calling for an end to the attack once it had started.

The select committee has the task of bringing home to Americans how dangerous January 6 was for the survival of our democracy—a threat that remains as long as the GOP tries to rewrite the history of that day and restore Trump to the White House. The committee’s effort will not be aided by juicy plot lines that lead nowhere. Maybe there is something worse we can learn about what happened that day. But what we already know is bad enough.

Sarah Palin Has Her Eye on a Seat in Congress. She’ll Have to Beat 47 Other Candidates to Get It.

Alaska has just one seat in the House of Representatives, and Sarah Palin (she’s back, baby!) wants it. Earlier this spring, when the former governor announced her return to campaigning after 14 years, the move drew national attention to a seat that became vacant after the March death of Rep. Don Young, the longest-serving member of Congress in GOP history. But while Palin leads the field in national name recognition, she’s still facing an uphill battle: To win, she’ll have to defeat a record-breaking field of 47 other candidates. 

That extensive field is due in part to the state’s new mail-in ranked-choice primary, which is open to all candidates, regardless of party affiliation. Voting in the special primary, which started on April 27, concludes on June 11. The four candidates with the most votes will be on the general special election ballot in August—and in such a right-leaning state, it’s quite possible that there won’t be a single Democrat on that list of finalists. To make things more complicated, the special election is just to fill Young’s seat through the end of his term this year, which means the winner will have to run once again in November.

Even for those who aren’t closely following the intricacies of Alaska politics, there are plenty of reasons not to ignore this race. For one thing, although the state is small in population, its congressional delegation helps secure disproportionate amounts of funding (last year, Alaskans got about $24,000 per capita in federal funding, compared to less than $15,000 for other sparsely populated states like Wyoming and Vermont). And whoever wins could have the chance to shape national politics for decades. Young represented Alaska for 49 years, and his seat was pretty much glued to him—even putting a knife to GOP ex-Speaker John Boehner’s throat didn’t threaten his job security. Seniority is power in Congress: If your predecessor coasted to reelection for half a century, you could be looking at the literal gig of a lifetime. Visualize Sarah Palin in Washington well into her eighties. (At the same time, the new ranked-choice voting system may help reduce long stints of incumbency.) 

Young at least crossed the aisle at times, most recently for Biden’s big infrastructure bill. Palin, a pro-Trump, anti-vax, rigged-election conspiracist, probably wouldn’t. But she hasn’t held office since quitting the governorship in 2009, so who knows? What she has done: served as a Fox News pundit, hosted the reality show Sarah Palin’s Alaska (IMDb rating: 2.6 out of 10), appeared on The Masked Singer, hosted yet another show about “America’s outdoor lifestyle”—in other words, she’s a celebrity. And it’s worked: Polling shows she’ll likely advance to the top four. Still, proponents of ranked-choice voting argue that the system is better at finding a consensus candidate—which could be bad news for a more politically extreme figure like Palin. 

Palin’s competition includes six Democrats, 16 Republicans, 22 with no party affiliation, two Libertarians, one American Independent Party candidate, and one from the Alaskan Independence Party. Additionally, four Alaska Native candidates are running to be the first Native congressional representative from the state with America’s largest Native population share (about 19 percent). 

Let’s meet some of those 48 candidates.

Nick Begich III: Begich comes from Alaska’s best known Democratic dynasty—his grandfather, Nick Begich Sr., held the state’s congressional seat before Young. But this Begich is a Republican, and he’s emerged as one of the frontrunners in the race. While Palin has the national endorsements from Trump and his circle, it’s Begich, the chair of a software company, who has the endorsements from state political leaders and leads the field in fundraising (though half of the money he’s raised is from his own pocket). Begich was one of the only candidates to enter the race while Young was still alive, running to the congressman’s right: He was vocally critical of Young’s spending and, reportedly, his enforcement of a vaccine mandate for congressional staff. Begich also recently finished up a fellowship with the conservative activist Club for Growth—according to the Guardian, one of the biggest backers of Republicans who voted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. 

Al Gross: In the spirit of the frontier, many Alaskans choose to buck conventional party lines and go solo. One of those candidates, orthopedic surgeon Al Gross, will at least be familiar to most voters. An independent, he ran an unsuccessful campaign to unseat Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan in 2020, ultimately losing by more than 10 points in the general election. This year, after Gross wouldn’t commit to caucusing with Democrats if elected, the state’s Democratic party disavowed him, saying he was “not a liberal” and “a proven loser.” Gross has campaigned on a platform to make healthcare more affordable, though he’s said he doesn’t necessarily support Medicare for All. And in true Alaskan form, he’s pro-oil—so don’t expect a Green New Deal from this one (although he is a strong supporter of renewables). Many voters remember him as the “Bear Doctor” after a quirky campaign video recounted the story of him shooting a bear in self-defense. Gross, along with Palin and Begich, is extremely likely to advance to the general election. 

Mary Peltola: Peltola, a Yup’ik Alaska Native woman and former state legislator, is one Democrat who could possibly crack the top four—she’s won support from some prominent tribal leaders and former legislators. Peltola has touted food security, a growing concern for Alaskans in recent years, as one of her main issues. Her campaign strategy has involved emphasizing her credentials as a moderate Democrat and playing up her personal connection to the late Don Young—she’s talked about eating Thanksgiving dinner with him when she was just in high school. Peltola’s past may haunt her, though: In 2005 she was the tie-breaking vote in the decision to eliminate the state’s teacher retirement plan, a move she recently described as “the biggest regret of my legislative career.” 

Josh Revak: An Iraq combat veteran and current representative in the state legislature, Revak has been endorsed by the late Don Young’s wife, Anne, who claims that he is the successor the congressman wanted. That’s not insignificant to the many Alaskans who want to see Young’s work continued, and Revak hasn’t shied away from touting that endorsement. Unlike Begich, who criticized Young’s spending in Washington, Revak told the Anchorage Daily News that he will continue Young’s “legacy by putting partisan politics aside.”

Tara Katuk Sweeney: GOP candidate Tara Sweeney is Inupiaq and hails from Utqiaġvik, the northernmost town in the US. She’s worked in state Republican politics since 2003, and Trump chose her to serve as assistant secretary for Indian Affairs from 2018 to 2021. After Begich and Palin, she is one of the more serious Republican contenders in the race: She’s one of the top fundraisers and has attracted support from many of the state’s Alaska Native corporations. Sweeney is also a vocal backer of the controversial drive to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Christopher Constant: A Democratic member of the state House of Representatives, Constant is also one of the candidates who announced he was running while Young was still alive. Despite living in a red state, he hasn’t shied away from running on a liberal platform and told the Anchorage Daily News that he strongly supports abortion rights and gun control measures. As a state legislator, he’s focused on issues of housing, behavioral health, raising wages, and worker safety. Constant is also the first openly LGBTQ person to run for the Alaska congressional delegation. 

Santa Claus: No, but actually. Santa Claus is a member of the North Pole City Council (yes, that’s a real town) who legally changed his name back in 2003. Complete with the white hair and beard, his policies resemble a less merry but also white-haired man: Bernie Sanders. Although running as an independent, Claus is a self-described “progressive, Democratic socialist” who supports Medicaid expansion. In his pre-Santa days, he worked as the special assistant to New York City’s deputy police commissioner, and as such told the Anchorage Daily News that he doesn’t believe in “defunding the police,” despite his left-wing credentials. He’s only running to fill out the rest of Young’s open term and doesn’t plan to campaign to fill the seat in 2023. Want to donate to Santa Claus? Too bad—he isn’t taking your money. He’s running his campaign on 400 bucks of his own cash. No word yet on whether he’ll have lumps of coal for naughty members of Congress—although some extraction-hungry Republicans might like that. 

A Terrifying New Novel Imagines What Happens When Tech Lords Take Over the Government

Vauhini Vara didn’t set out to write about tech lords. After spending several years as a Wall Street Journal reporter in the 2000s, she left journalism to do an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and work on short stories instead. She didn’t expect her experiences trailing Larry Ellison and Mark Zuckerberg to inform her fiction craft; “I didn’t think I was going to write about it,” she told me via Zoom from her home in Fort Collins, Colorado.

But soon enough, the tech titans began creeping into her ideas for a novel. In Vara’s The Immortal King Rao, out May 3 from W.W. Norton, society has splintered in two. On one side is the Shareholder Government, devoted to “Social Capital” and ruled by a master algorithm; on the other, the Blanklands, islands populated by anarchist Exes. King Rao has injected his granddaughter Athena with his memories. As she pieces together Rao’s rise, from son of a Dalit coconut farmer to global tech superstar, she, and we, must make sense of the price of technological conquest.

The book took 13 years for Vara to complete, a period during which she returned to journalism, writing for outlets like Wired and serving as the business editor for the New Yorker, and became a mother. In the meantime, Facebook ballooned into a global behemoth and morphed into Meta, and Elon Musk began trying to embed computer chips into our brains. In other words, though it waited more than a decade, the novel arrives at just the right time to help us make sense of this strange new world. I caught up with Vara in April to ask her about her inventive book and how her Dalit heritage worked its way into the story.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Your book examines what happens when tech leaders amass too much power. Elon Musk just offered to buy Twitter for $44 billion, potentially adding it to his growing collection of companies. I wondered what your reaction to that purchase is? [Editor’s note: Musk’s acquisition of the social media company now looks to be up in the air.]

I mean, it feels like a reminder that we think of ourselves as having these public institutions that help govern how society is run. But increasingly, a lot of what we do and where we live takes place outside of those institutions, like a lot of our communication takes place on Twitter. It’s a publicly traded company, but a private institution, you know, not a government institution. Which means it’s possible for an extremely rich man to come along and say, “I want to buy this.” It feels like people are sort of offended by it. But there are no structures set up to prevent something like that from happening. I think it’s a reminder to us of how how vulnerable we are to private individuals, and really wealthy individuals and wealthy corporations having a major role in determining how we do these basic things in life, including communicating with each other.

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Your novel, in part, is a rags-to-riches tale about a character named King Rao, who climbs his way to tech superstardom. Where did you find the seeds for this story?

I was on a train with my dad and his wife in Peru, in 2009. I was in graduate school at the time, and I was trying to finish a collection of short stories. And my dad was teasing me, “Nobody reads those. What you should start is a novel.” Teasing him back, I was like, “Okay, Dad, what should I write a novel about then?” And he gave me two really bad ideas. And then he said, “You should write about my family coconut grove, where I grew up.” I had spent time there as a kid, when we visited India, and I’d heard stories about it from relatives—it did have a pretty dramatic history. My dad’s family were Dalit laborers on that land. And then they came to own that land, which came with a new phase of drama for the family. So there was this inherently interesting material.

But because I’d never grown up in the 1950s as a Dalit kid on a coconut grove, I felt poorly equipped to try to write a book from the perspective. At the time, my husband and I were watching the Battlestar Galactica reboot from the mid-2000s. And if you saw that you’ll remember there’s this technology, sort of like digital telepathy, that allows the access of what’s in other people’s minds. I thought if I could, as a writer, use a technology like that, then I would be able to write about this place and have a narrative voice that’s not claiming to actually embody a character growing up in that place. It started a little bit as a craft device.

At the same time, I was in graduate school after having spent three years as a tech reporter at the Wall Street Journal. I was hired to write mostly about Oracle; the beat was enterprise tech. We didn’t have anybody writing about Facebook at the time, so I ended up taking that on too, because I was the 23-year-old or whatever. I was spending time writing about and sometimes meeting Larry Ellison and Mark Zuckerberg, and finding myself pretty interested in how you get from being a 22-year-old kid who started this tech company to like, a 60-whatever-year-old man, however old Larry Ellison was, who’s one of the richest men in the world. That was all in the back of my mind when I went away to grad school; I didn’t think I was going to write about it. But then when I started to write about King and this technology, I just ended up writing my way toward this idea of King moving to the US in the 1970s and starting a tech company. 

Then it took me 13 years to figure out what to do next.

Can you talk some more about your choice to make your main characters, the Raos, from the Dalit caste? What was your experience having ties to this caste? Especially given that you’ve lived mostly in Canada and the US?

It felt like my dad’s family story was inextricable from the story of caste. So it almost felt less like it was a choice and more that I was like, “All right, well, if I’m writing a story that’s like my dad’s story, that has to be an element of it.” I did not grow up identifying strongly as Dalit in particular. Growing up in Canada and the US in the ’80s and ’90s, caste oppression hadn’t been exported to the North America yet to the extent that it has been now just because the South Asian population in the US and Canada was smaller.

“My dad’s family story was inextricable from the story of caste.”

And then some point a couple of years ago, I spoke to this Dalit American who grew up in North America, like I did, named Thenmozhi Soundararajan. She’s a pretty prominent anti-caste-oppression activist. I asked her about the story behind how she identifies strongly as Dalit. And through that conversation, I remember realizing the usefulness of publicly identifying as Dalit so that emerging writers who may come from a Dalit background, or just other young people in the US from Dalit backgrounds, might see a visible person in the world, a journalist or writer from a Dalit background, and be like, okay that person is out there, you know what I mean? Because with caste, it’s different from some other aspects of racial identity, or ethnic identity, that are visible, you know? It’s easy to not identify publicly as Dalit. Nobody would necessarily know. So it felt like a helpful thing to make that known.

And secondarily, it felt important to acknowledge my own Dalit background in writing about Dalit characters. It’s not like I’ve grown up experiencing caste oppression on a regular basis, the way some members of my family growing up in India in the 20th century, or the way plenty of Dalit Indian American workers in the tech industry, for example, are facing discrimination. My experience has not been like that, which isn’t to say it doesn’t exist.

Did you spend time at your family’s coconut grove to do research? How exactly did it function?  

I visited as a child just a small handful of times. Then in 2010, after finishing grad school, I went and spent a month in India, and spent several days back on the coconut grove, walking around and taking notes and talking to family members. It was kind of like in the book: At first they were just growing their own coconuts and selling them. And then they were like, “Oh, we can do better business if we just buy coconuts from all the other farms, and then process them on our land.” They would dry them and process them on their own. The business started to be a little less reliant on the actual coconuts and more on like, the middleman role.

I also met with scholars who studied Dalit life in the 20th century in South India, and how it evolved over time, and I talked to somebody at the Coconut Research Station. I did approach it a little bit with my journalist hat on, too.

One character describes how every part of the coconut plant is useful, from the palm leaves to the coconut’s shell. There’s kind of a parallel, I thought, in how King tells his granddaughter Athena, “You and I—we Raos—don’t believe there’s a problem that doesn’t have a solution!” It seems like this is an apt fruit to represent their family. And yet, it seemed to me that the novel was examining the limitations of this solutionist mindset. Do you remember one of the first times you questioned whether technology was going to solve our problems? Or whether technology was really making things better?

It’s a great question, but I don’t think I have a good answer. The idea of tech solutionism that comes up when King and Margie start the company, I was thinking about that a lot. We think of solutionism as being this sort of new concept inherent to the past 20 or 30 years of the development of technology, but it’s also in some ways just a very human orientation, right? Like the way in which we, as a species, are always trying to figure out what we can wring from the world.

I noticed there were two main post-capitalist models portrayed in the book. One was the shareholder government that was corporate-run and dictated by a Master Algorithm. And then shareholders sell their labor at will and are compensated in social capital. This to me sounds like, what would happen if we allowed Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk to design our government?

Yeah, I mean, yes [laughs]. I was saying something to my mom about the relationship between my novel and the real world. And she was like, “Yeah, but your novel’s fictional? It’s just about like, what would happen if you know, somebody took this too far?” And I said to her, like, “Well, yes. And it’s totally easy to imagine, like the actual tech CEOs that currently exist in our world, potentially taking the world in that direction.” It doesn’t feel like too much of an imaginative stretch, right?

Yeah, unfortunately it does not. So in the other model, some people that you’ve deemed “Exes,” they’ve kind of abandoned their role as shareholders and fled to the Blanklands. They do a lot of bartering and contributing to the community for the good of the whole. (This is kind of a side note, but I was interested to see that sex work, as the oldest profession in the world, still maintains an important role in both economies.) So I was wondering to what extent these two models were based off theories by real economists and philosophers.

They were. I read a lot while trying to construct both scenarios. I read Thomas Piketty’s Capital and Ideology, which talks about caste. That book is trying to understand a lot of things, including what the future of government could look like in the context of the way in which our economies are changing. And then I also read these classic anarchist writers and thinkers, like Emma Goldman’s autobiography. I wanted both of those models to be informed by a real enough understanding of how those systems could play out. But I wanted the book to make clear that they each have their limitations, too, right?

I mean, neither of them end up feeling like great places to be. But if you did have to choose, which society would you want to be part of when Elon Musk takes over and starts running everything by algorithm?

I love the question. But I don’t want to answer it for readers because I want the book to leave it open-ended.

That’s fair. A press release summed your book up as posing this urgent question: “Can anyone—peasant laborers, convention-destroying entrepreneurs, radical anarchists, social-media followers—ever get free?” And so I wondered, when do you feel the most free these days?

Probably when I’m in my own small world with my immediate family and our own little community and, you know—not online.

True the Vote Raised Millions to Combat Voter Fraud—But No One Really Knows Where the Money Went

This article was produced Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, which is a nonprofit investigative newsroom. Sign up to get their investigations emailed to you directly.

Over the last two presidential election cycles, True the Vote has raised millions in donations with claims that it discovered tide-turning voter fraud. It’s promised to release its evidence. It never has. 

Instead, the Texas-based nonprofit organization has engaged in a series of questionable transactions that sent more than $1 million combined to its founder, a longtime board member romantically linked to the founder, and the group’s general counsel, an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has found. 

A former PTA mom-turned-Tea Party activist, True the Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht has played a pivotal role in helping drive the voter fraud movement from the political fringes to a central pillar in the Republican Party’s ideology. Casting herself as a God-fearing, small-town Texan, she’s spread the voter-fraud gospel by commanding airtime on cable television, space on the pages of Breitbart News, and even theater seats, as a new feature film dramatizing her organization’s exploits, “2000 Mules,” plays in cinemas across the country. 

Along the way, she’s gained key allies across the conservative movement. Former President Donald Trump, who shouts her out by name during rallies and held a private screening for the film at his Mar-a-Lago resort, exploited the group’s declarations to proclaim that he won the popular vote in 2016. Provocateur Dinesh D’Souza partnered with Engelbrecht on the film. And she’s represented by the legal heavyweight James Bopp Jr., who helped dismantle abortion rights, crafted many of the arguments in the Citizens United case that revolutionized campaign finance law, and was part of the legal team that prevailed in Bush v. Gore

A review of thousands of pages of documents from state filings, tax returns, and court records, however, paints the picture of an organization that enriches Engelbrecht and partner Gregg Phillips rather than actually rooting out any fraud. According to the documents, True the Vote has given questionable loans to Engelbrecht and has a history of awarding contracts to companies run by Engelbrecht and Phillips. Within days of receiving $2.5 million from a donor to stop the certification of the 2020 election, True the Vote distributed much of the money to a company owned by Phillips, Bopp’s law firm, and Engelbrecht directly for a campaign that quickly fizzled out. 

Legal and nonprofit accounting experts who reviewed Reveal’s findings said the Texas attorney general and Internal Revenue Service should investigate.

“This certainly looks really bad,” said Laurie Styron, executive director of CharityWatch. 

And while the claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election have been dismissed out of hand by courts and debunked by audits, even those led by Republicans, the story of True the Vote highlights how exploiting the Big Lie has become a lucrative enterprise, growing from a cottage industry to a thriving economy. 

The records show: 

  • True the Vote regularly reported loans to Engelbrecht, including more than $113,000 in 2019, according to a tax filing. Texas law bans nonprofits from loaning money to directors; Engelbrecht is both a director and an employee.
  • Companies connected to Engelbrecht and Phillips collected nearly $890,000 from True the Vote from 2014 to 2020. The largest payment—at least $750,000—went to a new company created by Phillips, OPSEC Group LLC, to do voter analysis in 2020. It’s unclear whether OPSEC has any other clients; it has no website and no digital footprint that Reveal could trace beyond its incorporation records. The contract, which one expert called “eye-popping” for its largess, did not appear to be disclosed in the 2020 tax return the organization provided to Reveal.
  • True the Vote provided Bopp’s law firm a retainer of at least $500,000 to lead a legal charge against the results of the 2020 election, but he filed only four of the seven lawsuits promised to a $2.5 million donor, all of which were voluntarily dismissed less than a week after being filed. The donor later called the amount billed by Bopp’s firm “unconscionable” and “impossible.” 
  • The organization’s tax returns are riddled with inconsistencies and have regularly been amended. Experts who reviewed the filings said it makes it difficult to understand how True the Vote is truly spending its donations.

In one instance, True the Vote produced two different versions of the same document. A copy of the 2019 tax return Engelbrecht provided to Reveal does not match the version on the IRS website

The IRS version showed Phillips as a board member. Englebrecht’s version did not. The IRS return showed Engelbrecht had a loan balance of $113,396. Engelbrecht’s version indicated the loan’s balance was gone. In response to questions from Reveal, Engelbrecht said she was going to submit an amended version of the group’s 2019 tax return—the one she’d provided to Reveal—to the IRS. 

Catherine Engelbrecht of True the Vote.

Gage Skidmore

Engelbrecht declined to be interviewed for this story, routing specific inquiries through Bopp and her accountant. Bopp wouldn’t answer questions about the loan and who approved the contracts, saying that was confidential financial information. He said there was “nothing inherently wrong or improper with contracting with board members to do services for the corporation.” 

“I’ve represented not-for-profits for 45 years,” Bopp said, “and it is common.”

However, experts questioned whether True the Vote had the proper structure and policies to safeguard against self-dealing the way other nonprofits would.

As True the Vote has gained prominence, Engelbrecht has maintained an oversized control of the charity as its only employee in recent years and a member of a small board of directors that’s been packed with potential conflicts of interests. “That’s a real problem,” said Styron, of CharityWatch. 

The federal government grants nonprofit organizations a special status, allowing them to operate tax-free in recognition of their public benefit. In exchange, they are subject to greater scrutiny and transparency to ensure that donor funds are being used properly. 

Experts said an organization with more than $1 million in revenue typically would have more employees and a larger board. “These are public dollars, and the board members and officers of a charity have a fiduciary duty to…spend all of the resources of the charity carrying out the mission of the organization to the best of their ability in ways that benefit the nonprofit,” Styron said. “Not in ways that benefit them personally.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has appeared on Engelbrecht’s podcast and has been an active supporter of attempts to overthrow the 2020 election. In court filings in a donor lawsuit against True the Vote, his office said it would review the case to see if any action is warranted. Reveal sought his office’s communications about True the Vote through Texas public records law, but he refused to disclose them, citing attorney-client privilege. 

Meanwhile, True the Vote’s work continues to get airtime in Trump’s speeches. At a rally earlier this year in Southeast Texas, the former president celebrated Engelbrecht as a champion.

“If you have any information about ballot harvesting in your state, call Catherine Engelbrecht.”

“What a job she’s done, thank you, thank you, Catherine,” Trump said. “If you have any information about ballot harvesting in your state, call Catherine Engelbrecht.”

In the late 2000s, Engelbrecht was a small-business owner in Southeast Texas who was not deeply involved in politics. But Barack Obama’s election as president in 2008 concerned her enough that she got active in local Tea Party efforts, attending rallies and meetings. 

Along with her then-husband, Bryan Engelbrecht, she created a nonprofit called King Street Patriots, which trained volunteers who ended up poll watching in mostly Black and Latino neighborhoods in Harris County. It ran into problems for violating the law that prohibits nonprofits from being overtly political, and the Engelbrechts spun off True the Vote.

Catherine Engelbrecht earned regular appearances on Fox News, where she once offered a $1 million bounty for testimony. She advocated for Texas’ strict voter ID law in 2013. A year later, Engelbrecht and her husband filed for divorce and Bryan Engelbrecht left True the Vote’s board. Gregg Phillips, a longtime conservative operative, took his seat. 

Gregg Phillips on CNN.

Phillips had been dogged by allegations of financial impropriety, accused of leveraging his government positions in Mississippi and Texas to make himself money. The same year Phillips joined True the Vote’s board, the nonprofit began to pay entities he controlled.

In 2014, True the Vote paid $25,000 to American Solutions for Winning the Future for a “donor list rental.” Phillips was the director, records show. The next year, True the Vote gave $30,000 to a company called Define Idea Inc. for “IT support services.” Phillips was a director of the company, according to its formation documents.

That year, Engelbrecht began receiving questionable payments from True the Vote as well. 

According to its 2015 tax filings, it issued Engelbrecht a $40,607 loan. Under Texas law, nonprofit directors can’t receive loans, though employees can. Engelbrecht is both a director and an employee. True the Vote wouldn’t answer questions about who approved the loan, its conditions and whether Engelbrecht voted on it as a board member. 

“I’m not going to respond to you on this,” Bopp said. “If you want free legal research, go pay a lawyer to do it.”

But that wasn’t the only way Engelbrecht got access to her nonprofit’s coffers. ARC Network LLC and Ao2 LLC were paid a total of $82,500 in 2015 and 2016 for “database license fees” and “software license fees,” respectively, according to the tax filings, which disclose that the companies are tied to Engelbrecht. Court filings indicate that she owned 100% of ARC Network; she is listed as the owner of Ao2 in registration documents in Wyoming.

ARC Network and Define Idea were barred by Texas in 2015 from doing business, state records show.  

A business can be forfeited when a company doesn’t file a mandatory annual report showing its owner, directors and registered address—or when it does not pay taxes. Reveal couldn’t find other clients or a footprint for the two companies Engelbrecht owned. 

Brian Mittendorf, an Ohio State University accounting professor who specializes in nonprofit accounting, said the records raise a series of red flags. 

“Our audit team will include world-class technologists, researchers, data miners, statisticians, scholars, analysts, and subject matter experts. This isn’t B team stuff. The integrity of our election is too important.”

“We always have concerns from a governance standpoint about organizations engaging in such transactions with insiders, and the organization’s behavior, in terms of its accounting and inconsistencies, only inflame those concerns,” he said. 

Engelbrecht and Phillips’ ties go beyond True the Vote. Their companies have shared the same mailing address, and Engelbrecht in 2016 was named the CFO of one of Phillips’ companies. In court filings, a donor later alleged that the two were “lovers,” something they haven’t denied. 

When Reveal asked Bopp about their relationship, he said: “I do not know the facts because it’s none of my business, whether they’re in a romantic relationship or not.” 

In 2016, just weeks after pulling off his stunning presidential victory, Trump made an unprecedented claim: Millions of people had voted illegally in the election. And, he said, that’s why he’d lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton—by what would ultimately be about 2.9 million votes. 

He didn’t offer up any evidence. But weeks later, Phillips appeared on CNN claiming he had the data analysis to show that more than 3 million voted illegally in the 2016 election. But when asked to show proof, Phillips said he needed time to verify the data.

“(We) believe that it will probably take another few months,” Phillips said. 

Trump tweeted shortly after the interview: “Gregg Phillips and crew say at least 3,000,000 votes were illegal. We must do better!” 

True the Vote quickly used the opportunity to push a $1 million fundraising campaign to audit its data

“Our audit team will include world-class technologists, researchers, data miners, statisticians, scholars, analysts, and subject matter experts. This isn’t B team stuff,” Engelbrecht wrote in a fundraising email. “The integrity of our election is too important.”

But Engelbrecht and Phillips never completed the audit or released the evidence behind their claims. In a video posted on YouTube in June 2017, Engelbrecht said they dropped the effort because donor promises didn’t materialize. 

In 2017, the organization was in the red by more than $139,000. It reported having one employee, Engelbrecht, down from 11 employees in 2012. The $40,607 loan to Engelbrecht remained on the books in 2017, accounting for more than 66% of the nonprofit’s total assets.  

The next year, True the Vote reported it had $4,754 in cash

But that didn’t stop True the Vote from giving ever-growing loans to Engelbrecht. In 2018, it disclosed an outstanding $61,896 loan to Engelbrecht. It’s unclear whether Engelbrecht took one loan that grew over the years or multiple loans. 

The nonprofit’s tax returns make it difficult to follow. 

Lloyd Mayer, a nonprofit law professor at the University of Notre Dame, said there’s “a lot of sloppiness” in the financial statements. Documentation around Engelbrecht’s loan at times contradicted itself, saying in one section she paid it off but then still had a balance in another. 

“The changes over time and the fact that in 2017, it doesn’t say which way the money’s flowing, would make me ask if I was in the attorney general’s office, at least ask: Could you clarify?” Mayer said.

In a number of years, True the Vote never answered important governance questions in its tax filings, such as whether it has policies around conflicts of interest, whistleblowers, document retention, and how it determines Engelbrecht’s pay. “Importantly, it fails to answer questions about family or business relationships between officers and board members,” said Styron, the leader of CharityWatch. She called True the Vote “a governance black hole.”

It’s also unclear when Phillips left the board. In court documents, he says he left the board in 2017. However, the 2018 tax return listed him as a board member, as did the original 2019 filing. Phillips didn’t respond to multiple attempts to reach him for comment; he has previously denied wrongdoing in the Mississippi and Texas cases.

When True the Vote claimed it filed an amended 2019 return in response to Reveal’s questions, it filled in the governance questions and no longer listed Phillips as a board member. Experts said the differences in the amended return were highly unusual. 

“To me, that makes no sense,” said Philip Hackney, a former IRS official who teaches tax law at the University of Pittsburgh. 


As the November 2020 election approached, Engelbrecht and attorney James Bopp Jr. warned on the nonprofit’s podcast that Democrats planned to use the courts to expand mail-in voting and said the organization had a plan to challenge it.

“We’re going all in on this,” Engelbrecht said on her show in May 2020. “If you would have asked me two months ago, I would have not told you that litigation was any part of what we plan to do at True the Vote in 2020, but now it’s the most important thing we can do.” 

Yet as Election Day neared, conservative leaders were sounding the alarm about True the Vote. During a private meeting of the Council for National Policy in August 2020, a group of panelists was asked what they thought about True the Vote. Conservative journalist John Fund said he was the one who’d given Engelbrecht her first national publicity. 

“I like Catherine, but she has gone astray. She has hooked up with the wrong associates. And I have to say this with the greatest of sadness, because I have to be honest with you, because you’re the people who actually have to make decisions on your own about who to support. As much as I like Catherine personally, I would not give her a penny,” he said, according to a recently leaked video obtained by Documented. “She’s a good person who’s been led astray. Don’t do it.”

Soon after, in September 2020, Phillips opened his latest business: OPSEC Group LLC, incorporated in Alabama. It sprang up at the perfect moment: Trump already was casting doubt on the upcoming election’s outcome. 

“As much as I like Catherine personally, I would not give her a penny. She’s a good person who’s been led astray. Don’t do it.”

Then Election Day came, and Trump demanded that states stop counting votes as it appeared Biden would win. 

He claimed victory, saying—without proof—that he’d been the victim of massive fraud. Trump’s campaign promised action: a legal campaign challenging the outcome in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia. Rumors and conspiracy theories about illegal voting—often in Democratic areas home to Black and Brown voters—ramped up in earnest.  

Fred Eshelman watched in angst. A pharmaceutical entrepreneur from North Carolina, Eshelman was concerned that the election had been riddled with fraud. 

A political consultant emailed some of those conspiracies to Eshelman the morning of November 5, according to records filed as part of a lawsuit in rural Austin County, Texas. 

Eshelman responded eight minutes later. “This stuff really needs to be verified, quantified, and a massive information campaign launched at American people,” he wrote. “You want a revolt from the Silent Majority, you got it.”

He told the consultant, Tom Crawford, that they needed the best and most powerful public relations firm “cranked up now,” and they had to “figure out how to get it out in spite of the media.” 

At 6:36 a.m. that same morning, Bopp emailed Engelbrecht with the urgent plea to call him. The email’s subject line: “voter fraud and a legal challenge.”

“I have been contacted by a friend with access to substantial funding regarding an idea about lawsuits re voter fraud,” Bopp wrote. “You might be central to that. I would like to discuss.”

Within hours, Engelbrecht prepared a donor pitch for what she called Validate the Vote, a litigation plan to challenge the election using data and whistleblower testimony.

The two teams had a brief call, and Eshelman decided he was in. He wired True the Vote $2 million, records show. 

True the Votes’ plan laid out the details: Bopp, touted as the lead attorney in Citizens United and Bush v. Gore, would file lawsuits in seven states across the country to “nullify the results of the state’s election so that the Presidential Electors can be selected in a special election or by the state legislature.” OPSEC would “aggregate and analyze data to identify patterns of election subversion.” True the Vote would build public momentum and “galvanize Republican legislative support in key states.” The total cost of the campaign: $7.3 million.

“Thank you for this opportunity. We will not let you down,” Engelbrecht wrote in a November 5 email.

They were off. First, Bopp planned to file lawsuits in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania. and Georgia

But days later, the plan started to show strains. On November 7, the Associated Press called the election for Biden. By then, many lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign started to get dismissed in multiple states. The day after, Engelbrecht sent a text message saying Eshelman wanted to talk about their game plan moving forward. 

“He’s getting skittish that we can’t do this because the Trump camp is falling apart and people are jumping ship,” she said. 

Still, they pushed ahead and began spending Eshelman’s donation. On November 9, Phillips’ OPSEC submitted a bill to True the Vote for $350,000, according to court records. The invoice for the services is sparse; it bills for “Validate the Vote.” The quantity: one. It includes a litany of items ranging from “data” to “analysis,” “whistleblower” and “security,” all lumped in the six-figure bill. 

The next day, True the Vote paid Bopp a $500,000 retainer, according to court records. It also paid Engelbrecht a total of $30,000, the records indicate. 

By November 11, Eshelman was getting impatient, according to the communications. He wanted to know what the team was uncovering through its state-of-the-art computer programs and whistleblower tip line. 

“I know you’re running very hard, and I don’t want to pile on. However, I do want to know what money is accomplishing, where this is headed and the odds of winning,” he wrote to Engelbrecht. 

But Eshelman began to question the team as he failed to get the concrete follow-ups he expected from Engelbrecht. 

“I cannot continue to spend millions if this is quixotic,” he wrote to Engelbrecht and the consultant, Crawford, the morning of November 11. 

He saw an analogy in his own work that could be applied to his new calling. It was similar to a drug development process: Get the technology and then get the hard data to support the claims. This wasn’t “rocket science,” he wrote to Crawford. True the Vote said it had both handled.

By the end of that week, Engelbrecht said she needed more money for the project, according to court records. The $2 million hadn’t been enough. The consultant told Eshelman that they may need “additional short-term money for Bopp.” Eshelman wired another $500,000 on November 13. 

The next day, Engelbrecht touted knowledge of four whistleblowers but never identified who they were. When the consultant followed up with Engelbrecht later to get details on the whistleblowers, it led to tension. 

“I just had a difficult call with Catherine,” Crawford wrote to Eshelman on November 15. “She is resistant to sharing ANY details with us about whistleblowers or the data work and took an ‘I run this’ tone with me.”

That day, Eshelman implored Engelbrecht again to share whatever information she had on data and whistleblowers for the lawsuits so he could send it to South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Crawford, who’d said earlier that he had Fox News’ Sean Hannity waiting to break the news.

The consultant updated Eshelman that Graham’s team was “growing more skeptical every hour that passes with nothing from Catherine.” And he shared what he said Cleta Mitchell, an attorney aiding Trump’s attempts to overturn the election, thought of Engelbrecht.  

“Again, I am sorry for this headache. Cleta Mitchell, a well-known election attorney called to cheer us on for helping Bopp and told me Catherine ‘is crazy as a shithouse rat,’ ” Crawford wrote to Eshelman. 

(Mitchell, who had once represented True the Vote, denied ever making that comment. “I’ve never used that term in my life,” she said in an email to Reveal. “I’ve got lots of colloquialisms. That isn’t one of them.”)

On November 16, True the Vote convened a conference call with Eshelman and his consultant. The big donor learned that the group had voluntarily dismissed the four lawsuits. Emails show Eshelman was furious about the decision. 

“I cannot believe they did this without giving us a chance to get to Trump or be in on the decision,” Eshelman wrote later that day to his consultant, according to records.

“Very frankly I was physically sick after our call,” Eshelman wrote to Engelbrecht. “I have to tell you this is a total disaster from a coordination, communication, and representation perspective.”

By that point, True the Vote had spent one-third of Eshelman’s gift in 11 days and failed to produce anything meaningful in evidence, the records show. 

In an email to Eshelman and Bopp following the meeting, Engelbrecht indicated they fell short of funding goals. She told them that “our not having full funding was well known and often discussed.” She mentioned that she assumed the Trump campaign would be pitching in. 

“I’d written in my 11/14 email to you that it appeared our legal fees would have been covered by the Trump campaign, which I described in a statement of our cash position, described as best possible given the tight timeline with so many moving parts,” Engelbrecht wrote in a November 16 email. 

Later that night, Crawford began to express regrets about going with True the Vote. He told Eshelman he had been told that Bopp “was the guy” they needed for the legal efforts. 

“To get him I had to go through True the Vote. Given timing, I ran with that and am just kicking myself as it is clear from many friends and insiders that Catherine is a disaster,” Crawford wrote to Eshelman. “Her story is utter Bullshit.”

Eshelman ultimately sued the nonprofit in federal and state court, accusing True the Vote of using his donation to enrich Engelbrecht, Phillips, and Bopp. In court filings, True the Vote argues that Eshelman wasn’t entitled to his money back because there were no strings attached to the donation and that the relationship became strained after True the Vote didn’t want to pay a $1 million invoice connected to one of Eshelman’s consultants for communications. (The federal suit was withdrawn. In the state suit, True the Vote argued that the court didn’t have jurisdiction to handle the dispute, saying it was the purview of the Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton. A judge agreed and threw out the case. Eshelman has appealed the decision.)  

In a recent deposition in a separate lawsuit, Engelbrecht admitted that True the Vote had not identified widespread voter fraud at the time she pitched the Validate the Vote plan to Eshelman, despite proclaiming there was “significant evidence” in the one-page proposal she emailed to him on the project.

“This was a promotional piece,” Engelbrecht said of the document during the deposition, according to court records.

Presentation in Wisconsin.

Courtesy WKOW

Bopp never served on True the Vote’s board and doesn’t face the same potential conflicts of interest as Engelbrecht and Phillips do for some of their transactions, but he has come under scrutiny for the amount he billed for the aborted legal campaign. 

In the court records, Eshelman’s team said Bopp’s firm billed for more than $183,000 over a five- to seven-day period, in addition to more than $97,000 to supervise those attorneys. 

“After spending in excess of $280,000 to draft and file the nearly-identical complaints in those cases, Mr. Bopp and his law firm then dismissed them all just days later,” the lawsuit reads. “Not only is the amount charged for these cookie-cutter complaints unconscionable—and likely impossible given the size of his firm (only five attorneys) and the number of hours available—but the goal was actually unachievable.” Eshelman said he later learned that the voter data Bopp sought in the suits would not even have been available before the election results would’ve been certified. 

Bopp said there were no cookie-cutter lawsuits – each state had different laws and procedures, requiring lawsuits to be tailored for each. “These people are so ignorant,” he said of Eshelman’s group. “This was ignorance.”

He said he dropped the lawsuits because courts didn’t act on them fast enough for him to acquire voter data. 

Bopp said his work was efficient—“remarkably cheap”—and dropping the lawsuits was the financially responsible thing to do. “Why the hell am I being criticized for trying to save my clients money rather than just go forward?” he said. “Knowing that it’s highly unlikely that any of the legal work that I do will bear any fruit whatsoever? I mean, I should be praised for saving the client’s money.” 

Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, called the lawsuits “bogus” to begin with. “Jim probably withdrew the lawsuit so that he wouldn’t have to perpetuate a fraud on the court,” he said. 

As for the $30,000 payment to Engelbrecht from Eshelman’s donation, Bopp said it was to oversee the project. True the Vote said it was part of her $197,000 annual pay. 

And Phillips’ OPSEC continued to bill True the Vote after Eshelman had broken ties, according to court records. On Dec. 7, OPSEC billed the nonprofit for $400,000 for a project called Eyes on Georgia.

At the same time, Phillips and Engelbrecht had another business going. While she reported working full time for True the Vote, Engelbrecht also was the president, according to records, of another software company Phillips owned that had a nearly $800,000 contract with Mississippi’s Department of Information Technology Services. 

At the end of 2020, Engelbrecht and Phillips received an extension to the contract. They renamed their company, which promises to detect fraud and abuse in government programs, from AutoGov to CoverMe Services Inc. It is a health care software company. 

The company was awarded a nearly $1.7 million contract for work through 2023. 

Trump and True the Vote have moved past the failed election lawsuit strategy and are on to the next conspiracy theory: illegal ballot harvesting. 

That’s when a third party—like a household member, activist group, or nursing home—collects and submits absentee ballots on behalf of others, which is legal in a majority of states. It may be a new angle for Engelbrecht and Phillips, but they already have a similar refrain.

In an interview with conservative talk show host Charlie Kirk, Engelbrecht and Phillips said they planned to show their evidence following the May 7 launch of the film “2000 Mules.”

The feature film “2000 Mules” dramatizes the exploits of True the Vote.


“At some point, shortly after the video runs, we are going to pull the ripcord, we are going to release all of this,” Phillips said.

In a scene that mimics a spy thriller, the film’s trailer depicts two characters, who appear to be Phillips and Engelbrecht, making a tension-filled decision to release earth-shattering information. 

The film touts part of True the Vote’s new strategy: using anonymized cellphone data sold by vendors to show when a person was near a ballot dropbox multiple times – ostensibly hinting at “ballot harvesting” activity. 

Engelbrecht and Phillips still haven’t released the evidence. At one point in the film, they claim to have used the cellphone data to help solve the murder of a young Atlanta girl; that, too, has been debunked

So far, True the Vote’s cellphone data analysis is not convincing state officials in Wisconsin that illegal votes were cast. 

In a hearing in Madison earlier this year, Engelbrecht and Phillips said their analysis suggested people were delivering ballots that weren’t their own. 

But again, when asked to show the evidence, they declined. 

Reporter Ese Olumhense contributed to this story.

Will Nebraska Build a $500 million Canal Just to Own the Libs?

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

Earlier this spring, Nebraska lawmakers passed a bill authorizing construction of a canal that would siphon water from neighboring Colorado, igniting a war of words between the two states’ leaders. Nebraska’s governor, Republican Pete Ricketts, says that the canal will “protect Nebraska’s water rights for our kids, grandkids, and generations beyond.” Colorado’s Democratic governor, Jared Polis, calls the scheme a “canal to nowhere” that is “unlikely to ever be built.”

The two states share rights to water from the South Platte River, and Republican politicians in Nebraska say that a new canal is necessary to guard the state’s water supply from encroachment by its fast-growing neighbor to the west.

The strange thing about the political firestorm, according to water experts, is that the canal wouldn’t really do anything. The water Nebraska wants to protect doesn’t face an immediate threat from Colorado, and in any case it’s not clear the canal would provide Nebraska any additional water beyond what it already receives. The total amount of water that could flow through the planned $500-million-dollar canal is unlikely to change the course of either state’s future.

“It’s sort of a weird claim,” said Anthony Schutz, an associate law professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an expert on water issues. “I’m not sure what exactly this thing would protect us from.” 

Even if the canal doesn’t alter the balance of water between the two states, however, it does help Nebraska lawmakers spend down federal funding they received from the $1.9 trillion stimulus package passed by Congressional Democrats last year. It might also allow them to score political points by antagonizing the Democrats who govern Colorado. The episode comes as other parts of the western United States really do face wrenching, zero-sum tradeoffs in allocating water during an ongoing megadrought that has been exacerbated by climate change—and it may be a preview of how anxieties around those issues can be mobilized for partisan warfare.

The history behind the canal project is a curious footnote in the larger story of western water. Way back in 1923, Colorado and Nebraska signed a treaty that governed the use of one segment of the South Platte River, which flows from the Colorado Rockies through Denver and into Nebraska. The treaty required Colorado to send 150 cubic feet of water per second to Nebraska for the duration of the irrigation season—in other words, it prevented Colorado from drying up the river before Nebraska farmers could use it. The treaty also gave Nebraska the right to build a canal large enough to divert an additional 500 cubic feet of water per second during the irrigation offseason, but the project never came to fruition: Engineers had already tried and failed to build a canal through the rocky territory connecting the states in the late 1800s, and no one ever revived the idea.

For about a century, the treaty collected dust. Nebraska has perhaps the largest groundwater resources of any state, not to mention thousands of miles of rivers, so water wasn’t a huge issue. Plus, Colorado often exceeded its treaty obligations on the South Platte: From 1996 through 2015, the state delivered Nebraska almost 8 million more acre feet than it was required to deliver under the treaty. Around the same time, however, Colorado began drawing more from the South Platte to support booming population growth, primarily in the Denver area. 

“It’s a bit of a straw man…A lot of those projects that [Colorado] is proposing wouldn’t actually decrease the availability of water.”

In January of this year, Colorado officials released an updated plan for the South Platte, outlining almost 300 possible water diversion projects along the river. This list of projects was just hypothetical, but it caught the attention of Nebraska lawmakers. Governor Ricketts released a statement saying he was “vigilantly watching” the construction of new water infrastructure in Colorado, and he told the legislature “they are trying to take our water.” Even though water from the South Platte is far from essential to the survival of Nebraskan agriculture, and even though Colorado already delivered far more to Nebraska than it needed to under the treaty, Ricketts insisted the state needed to protect its water rights from the growing liberal metropolis to the west.

“It’s a bit of a straw man,” Schutz, the University of Nebraska water law expert, said of Nebraska’s concern about the Colorado projects. “A lot of those projects that [Colorado] is proposing wouldn’t actually decrease the availability of water.”

Even so, the century-old treaty gave Nebraska the theoretical rights to build a canal of its own, and the state had plenty of money to pursue such a project. That was thanks to President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which doled out billions of dollars of pandemic recovery aid to Nebraska and left the state with a significant budget surplus. The state’s unicameral legislature has spent most of this year’s session trying to find ways to spend down that surplus, and the $500 million canal project was a perfect candidate. The legislature passed a bill in April that allocated $50 million to start canal construction, enough to start purchasing land in Colorado and conduct preliminary designs.

The legislature’s sudden move on the bill came as a shock to water experts. As one Colorado water manager put it, “the water world was rocked” when the bill passed. 

That’s because, according to Schutz, the very premise of the canal project is flawed. Ricketts argued that the canal would avert a “decrease [in] agricultural water supplies and [increased] pumping costs,” but neither scenario is in the cards, even if Colorado’s population keeps growing. Nebraska relies on groundwater for more than 80 percent of its farming irrigation, and the water that comes from the hypothetical canal would only arrive during the off season anyway, so it wouldn’t help the state’s farmers. Meanwhile, the state’s water rights only cover one section of the South Platte, and Colorado has unlimited rights over a section of the river farther upstream, meaning the Centennial State can sustain future growth even without encroaching on Nebraska’s water.

Furthermore, Schutz says, it isn’t clear that there’s even enough water in the river to fill the canal, should it ever be built.

“From a political perspective, I think that the governor had to make Colorado into a bad guy.”

“If you look at the amount that’s coming in right now, that’s probably the maximum amount of water that we would ever get in the canal,” he told Grist. “And that is not a lot of water.” Not only that, but the treaty also only gives Nebraska the right to build a canal that can divert 500 cubic feet of water per second. It doesn’t actually give the state the right to that much water.

“From a political perspective, I think that the governor had to make Colorado into a bad guy, but then when you really get into the weeds I don’t know how bad of a guy Colorado is,” Schutz said, arguing that the state’s conservative government has been straining to find ways to spend away the federal stimulus money so that lawmakers “don’t have to deal with the political dynamics of having a bunch of extra cash to spend on social programs.”

As the bill neared passage this spring, the two governors sniped back and forth at each other in the media. Colorado Governor Polis called the project a “boondoggle” and said his state would “aggressively assert” its water rights. Ricketts shot back: “I didn’t know Jared Polis was so concerned about taxpayers here in Nebraska…. In fact, he’s never really talked to me.”

For now the debate is just a war of words, but it could escalate if the canal moves forward. Colorado and Nebraska have sued each other in the past over water, and indeed Colorado reached a settlement with Nebraska just a few years ago over claims that Colorado violated a water-sharing compact on a different river. Building the canal would require Nebraska to purchase or condemn farmland across state lines in Colorado, which would likely lead to litigation from private landowners as well. Colorado probably wouldn’t sue Nebraska until the latter actually began to build the canal, but if it did sue, the dispute would go straight to the US Supreme Court.

The fact that such a minor water project can generate so much controversy is a sign that water security is becoming a key political issue even in places where the drought situation is not yet catastrophic. The century-old compact between Nebraska and Colorado, like the treaties that anchor the use of the Colorado River farther to the west, was designed in an era of cooperation and compromise between the states. As water supplies across the region continue to vanish, though, that interstate friendliness is vanishing with them. In its place has emerged a conflict over how to balance competing interests like agriculture and urban growth. In this case, though, the conflict is more reminiscent of a schoolyard fight than a grand political debate.

San Francisco Voters Just Ousted Their Reformist District Attorney

San Francisco voters approved a measure to recall the city’s embattled district attorney, Chesa Boudin, in the primary election on Tuesday.

With 45 percent of the expected votes counted and Boudin trailing by about 23 percentage points, Boudin conceded defeat around 9:30 p.m. “This was never about one vote count. It was never about one election night party. This is a movement, not a moment in history,” he told a crowd of his supporters, according to New York Times reporter Thomas Fuller

Boudin, a former public defender, took office in 2020. He was elected with endorsements from progressive heavyweights like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and was one of numerous reform-minded district attorneys around the country who pledged to reimagine the role of prosecutors by rolling back mass incarceration, holding violent police officers accountable, and limiting racial injustices in the criminal legal system.

But he soon became a target for tough-on-crime critics who, in several cities, have sought to oust those very same district attorneys.

In all these places, “people are using fear narratives to paint a picture that reform and safety are opposite,” Akhi Johnson, a former prosecutor who now works at the Vera Institute of Justice, a think tank, told me recently. Progressive chief prosecutors in Los Angles, Chicago, and multiple districts in Virginia have faced recall proposals recently. But so far, Boudin is the only one to go down in the fight. “The pushback is becoming organized and targeted,” Jamila Hodge, an attorney who now helps lead the criminal justice reform group Equal Justice USA, told me last year as the recall effort against Boudin was getting off the ground. “It scares me that we’re seeing it get to this level.”

Boudin earned national attention during his election in 2019 in part because of his family’s background. His parents, both members of the Weather Underground, received lengthy prison sentences for their role in the 1981 Brink’s heist. Their incarceration shaped Boudin’s childhood and helped inform his beliefs about the criminal justice system. After becoming a public defender, he ran for district attorney with the goal of reducing mass incarceration. A couple of weeks after taking office, he announced that his team would no longer request cash bail for defendants, because he said the bail system unfairly jailed low-income people. For some low-level crimes, he began diverting more offenders to alternative programs like mental health and substance abuse treatment. He also promised not to pursue the death penalty or to prosecute juveniles as adults. 

Meanwhile, Boudin did seek to prosecute powerful actors who often escape scrutiny: His office filed charges against police officers for excessive force, while also suing the food delivery service DoorDash for unfair labor practices.

His opponents, financed partly by a Republican billionaire and venture capitalists, argued that his policies made the city less safe. “It’s turned into Escape From New York, Gotham City-level chaos here,” Jason Calacanis, an angel investor for Robinhood and Uber who supported the recall, said in 2021 on a podcast he co-hosts. The data does not support those claims: As I previously reported, overall crime is down in San Francisco, and the city has a relatively low homicide rate compared with other places of a similar size. Property crimes, which rose during the first year of the pandemic, are generally moving back toward more normal levels, with some exceptions like car thefts.

But regardless of the numbers, Boudin’s opponents have pointed to specific high-profile incidents as a way to bolster their case that the district attorney has failed to keep people safe: After a parolee named Troy McAlister killed two women during a hit-and-run on New Year’s Eve 2020, some residents blamed Boudin’s office, which previously referred McAlister to parole agents rather than filing new charges after some of the man’s prior arrests. Other San Franciscans argue Boudin has not done enough to hold perpetrators accountable for violent attacks against Asian American elders in the city.

“Anytime someone is trying to change a system, there’s resistance to it.”

The concerns about crime appear to have swayed many among San Francisco’s Democratic base. Over the past few months, polls showed that between 48 and 68 percent of voters in the city supported ousting Boudin from office. Some of these residents may be reacting to visible changes across San Francisco’s landscape during the pandemic, as the public health crisis amplified existing problems around poverty, substance abuse, and mental illness. As viral videos spread last year of sprawling homeless encampments, smash-and-grab robberies, and open-air drug use, Boudin and other San Francisco leaders came under intense scrutiny. “Mr. Boudin has actually planned to allow mayhem on San Francisco’s streets and in our homes,” Richie Greenberg, a 2018 Republican mayoral candidate who supported the recall, wrote in 2021. “He schemes to vastly favor criminals over law-abiding citizens.”

“Anytime someone is trying to change a system, there’s resistance to it,” the Vera Institute’s Johnson says of Boudin’s critics. The district attorney has faced pushback not only from the city’s police union, which described him during his 2019 campaign as the “#1 choice of criminals and gang members,” but also from Mayor London Breed, who has been openly critical of him in the media.

As numerous columnists and reporters have pointed out, there’s no evidence that Boudin was responsible for shifting crime rates in San Francisco during the pandemic. Homicides, for example, spiked almost universally around the country during 2020, in red and blue states alike. Boudin’s office is also just one piece of a complicated legal system: The city’s police department has been arresting far fewer people than it used to, with its lowest clearest rate in a decade.

But Boudin became an easy scapegoat for violence that academics have struggled to explain. “We have no idea why homicide rates are rising as much as they did across the country, and it’s scaring people,” Jennifer Doleac, an associate economics professor at Texas A&M who has studied crime rates, told me recently. “In a context like that where we don’t have good answers yet about why this is happening or what to do about it, it’s natural for people to start grabbing at anything that seems like it could be a good explanation. That doesn’t mean it actually is the explanation, and that often leads us down unproductive paths.” Tinisch Hollins, a lifelong San Francisco resident who helps lead the advocacy group Californians for Safety and Justice, which does not endorse or oppose political candidates, told me last year that she viewed the anti-Boudin recall campaign as a backlash to the Black Lives Matter and defund-police movements that gained momentum after the murder of George Floyd. 

With Boudin out, Mayor Breed is tasked with naming his temporary replacement. She previously declined to comment on who she might pick, but the San Francisco Chronicle recently highlighted some of the possible candidates, including Catherine Stefani, a moderate Democrat on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors and the first elected official to publicly support the recall. Whoever replaces Boudin will serve until an election in November.

It’s unclear whether San Francisco’s recall campaign could have a chilling effect for other reformist district attorneys beyond the Bay Area or California, or whether it might influence how Democratic politicians talk about crime ahead of the midterms. The Vera Institute’s Johnson doesn’t see Boudin’s ousting as a harbinger for things to come. “DA Boudin’s recall is an anomaly,” he told me. “Several reform prosecutors across the country have withstood challenges, and more prosecutors than ever are exploring reforms.” Still, Johnson acknowledged, “a few high-profile cases can shape perceptions, and that will remain a challenge for the movement.”

You Can’t Run on Defending Democracy if Democracy Is Broken

Wait, what is this all for?

Starting this week, the House’s January 6 Committee will hold a series of hearings, at least two of which will be in “primetime,” on the blitz of the Capitol by protesters egged on President Donald Trump on January 6. As my colleague David Corn has reported, the hope is to “convey the full significance of the insurrectionist assault on Congress.”

At some point, the medium becomes the message.

The seven Democrats and two Republicans on the panel face a massive undertaking to convince the American public, many of whom largely believe the news has exaggerated the affair, that something went dreadfully wrong on January 6, that American democracy was fundamentally harmed. It is an attempt to lay down for history what occurred.

Which is why it was odd this morning when the New York Times described the hearings as aimed at something else: winning the 2022 midterms.

NYT headline about violent coup to topple multi party electoral order of US republic apes talking point of party that orchestrated and covers up for sedition by casting attempt at national reckoning & accountability as a political horse race stunt

— Philip Gourevitch (@PGourevitch) June 7, 2022

Perhaps this is just a bad headline. The Washington Post reported Democrats are “not counting” on the January 6 hearings for influencing voters in the upcoming midterms; in the story, Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) noted that the presentation is solely “focused on presenting the American people with the truth about this violent attack.” The Times’ own report contains much of the same rhetoric.

But the headline is one set of a larger piece: New York magazine reported the plan is to “cast as stars” Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Democrats hired a former ABC News producer to assure it is, according to Axios, a “blockbuster investigative special.” At some point, the medium becomes the message.

What is this week’s massive, spectacle TV show actually defending? Institutions? Democracy? Rule of law? You mean the things that…don’t seem to be working at all for so many people?

Since January 6, and for much of the Trump era, Democrats have melded defenses of democracy with pleas to Vote Blue. (Donate, too, folks.) And so when Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) tells the Times he wants the hearings to show “how irresponsibly complicit Republicans were in attempting to toss out their vote and just how far Republicans will go to gain power for themselves,” it’s easy to ask: Is he talking about the midterms or an investigation of a violent attack? The answer is Democrats want it to be both. 

But putting on display weeks of what I’ve (perhaps crassly) started calling Democracy Porn can only do so much. People have to believe our electoral system, in some way, works for them. If not, an issue arises: What is this week’s massive spectacle TV show actually defending?

Institutions? Democracy? Rule of law? You mean the things that…don’t seem to be working at all for so many people?

Let’s remember: Over the past few years, a central thesis of the Democrats’ message has been to protect institutions of democracy. And that worked—they won. Yet, now with that power? Not much has be changed. Democrats failed to enshrine reforms like eliminating the filibuster and passing voting protections, among many others. They have often fallen short in making the institutions strong enough to be cheered.

Partly as a result, everything else is broken, too. After a heartbreaking deluge of mass shootings, Congress can’t pass gun reform. The Supreme Court is about to overturn Roe as the federal government more or less sits on its hands. Police, transit, housing, and health care remain fundamentally broken. COVID relief could have heralded a larger social welfare state if enshrined, fulfilling all those heady pieces about Joe Biden’s New Deal; instead, Democrats couldn’t even keep around the expanded child care tax credit, which had lifted many out of poverty. For all the paying attention to court cases, scandals, reports, hearings, and impeachment(s) that would finally oust Trump, he’s been fine. Carbon filters into the sky.

Yelling about our chief Democratic obstructionists in Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema isn’t wrong as a response to this. But we’re living under a system designed to empower them.

So, sure, one can imagine how these hearings would be a good idea, a thorough presentation that outlines the core concepts of what some Democrats have been screaming for a long time: The other side cares more about winning (appeasing Trump, in our parlance) than democracy (the will of the people) and here’s the proof.

But that gambit doesn’t work as well if everything, the very system itself, is broken. The material benefits of democracy must flow to people from the institutions to earn all this defense. If not, we are in grave danger.

The right has made clear where it’s headed. Consider the ascendency of Senate hopefuls J.D. Vance and Blake Masters, who have shorn their economic populism pretty far from the economic. Ponder the New Right. Think about (shudder, I’m sorry) how the faux-Marxists cool kids have indulged in it. They are landing pretty close to fascism. The Republican Party has illustrated it’s okay with a tinge of illiberalism. Who could forget CPAC in Hungary

January 6 was the more obvious of the antidemocratic moments of the past few years. But as Ari Berman has written for us, it is the slow-moving destruction of election law that could papercut our system to its knees. We’re living through a dirge of democracy; January 6 was a high note. If someone savvier takes up the reins, the next coup will likely be horrible, but also boring—and it might even be exceedingly popular.

The Democrats’ response to that cannot be only to message harder, even if it’s during primetime, that the other side is antidemocratic. Everyone saw it. The problem is not that enough people care that much about the sacred values of a Republic. They care about other things. For some, that’s bare allegiance to Donald Trump; for others, it’s tax cuts. No amount of framing will outweigh the galling lack of action by Democrats.

Democrats need to not only defend democracy in hearings, they have to make it popular in real life. Or else it seems like all there is the show.

There is only one solution: Shit has to work. I get that’s not easy, but democracy has to function as a way to make the lives of people tangibly and materially better. If it does not, people won’t believe in it. Democrats need to not only defend democracy in hearings, they have to make it popular in real life. Or else it seems like all there is is the show.

This is something Eric Foner, the historian most famous for his book on Reconstruction, recently wrote about the history of the Democratic Party for the London Review of Books. In defeating Trump, Foner warns, many missed how easily a new Republican coalition is forming. He seems to agree with Michael Kazin, whose new book, What It Took To Win, allows him to give a tour of the history of the party, in noting that “the Democrats have succeeded…when they have enacted policies, such as Medicare in the 1960s, that demonstrably serve all segments of the working and middle class.”

Lately, in having these thoughts, I’ve become back to a piece from 1941 by Dorothy Thompson. In it, she famously wrote about the “macabre parlor game” of wondering “Who Goes Nazi?” There are “the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers,” she writes.

Often, we think of the born Nazis. These are easy enough to identify. But I want to pause for a moment on those “whom democracy itself has created.” Who is this man? Thompson describes him thus: “He is the product of a democracy hypocritically preaching social equality and practicing a carelessly brutal snobbery. He is a sensitive, gifted man who has been humiliated into nihilism. He would laugh to see heads roll.”

Democrats must do everything in their power to stop that nihilism.

Abortion Pills Will Be Crucial in a Post-Roe World. But They’re Not the Magic Fix Many Think They Are.

Ever since it became evident that Roe is likely to fall in the coming weeks, activists and folks who are generally interested in preserving abortion access have heralded medication abortion as the great solution to the end of legal abortion. And it’s true—mifepristone and misoprostol have a lot of advantages that will surely come in handy in our post-Roe future, the main one being that it’s a do-it-yourself, at-home abortion method that is safe and effective. 

As Kimberly Inez McGuire, executive director at URGE (Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity), said in a media briefing, “As we look at the impact of abortion bans, particularly disproportionately impacting communities such as Black and Brown folks, young people, as well as low-income communities, and immigrants, and trans young people, it is even more important that we consider the potential of self-managed abortion as an essential tool for accessing reproductive health care and autonomy for these marginalized communities.”

For the past couple of years, I’ve been asking activists: What about the people I know who could never access the medication?

Though there are other kinds of self-managed abortions, the major abortion care approach for these communities is abortion pills, according to McGuire and Abortion on Our Own Terms, a campaign she works with that seeks to help educate pregnant people about their options. McGuire and her colleagues understand that education is an important part of their campaign, especially when it comes to the safety of using mifepristone and misoprostol. “The biggest disinformation that we see out there is the idea that the loss of Roe v. Wade will lead to unsafe abortion, and it’s very rooted in this kind of pre-Roe [history] that’s really a different experience of abortion, of what that political context has looked like in the past,” she says. “First and foremost, it’s important that we recognize that we have safe and effective abortion medication pills that we can use today to self-manage our own abortions.”

However, despite even the best of intentions, medication abortion is not a magic fix. More specifically, it is not and will not be the solution for everyone. And the sooner we realize that, the sooner we can set about working toward desperately needed solutions.

I write this while staring at my “ABORTION PILLS FOREVER” poster, courtesy of Shout Your Abortion. But for the past couple of years, I’ve been asking activists: What about the people I know who could never access the medication?

There are the rural folks who don’t have reliable access to broadband internet, and who have shouldered heaps of disinformation and stigma about their bodies and sex for as long as they’ve been aware of the world around them. Estimates regarding how many Americans live in internet deserts vary, but they are all significant: The FCC says it’s somewhere around 14.5 million; the White House has it at 30 million; and BroadbandNow, a research group, says the FCC severely underestimates the number, putting it instead at around 42 million.

Then there are countless people who simply can’t risk getting caught—maybe a teenager, or someone with an abusive partner, not to mention anyone fearing prosecution in a rapidly changing legal environment that is eager to target abortion pills. Crucially, the Supreme Court draft opinion that was leaked regarding Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization rolls back the privacy standard established in the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling. “This is a uniquely powerful change in the digital era, raising urgent questions about data security and privacy. The tools so many of us rely on to engage with the modern world are largely trackable, making it easier for authorities (or even private individuals) to go after people seeking abortions, or those who are trying to help them,” writes Erica Hellerstein for .coda. “People’s search histories, text messages, location data, social media activity, purchasing records, and use of reproductive health phone apps will likely become standard evidence in legal cases against people seeking abortions.” 

Telling people to simply go online, pay upwards of $250, and wait for the pills to come in the mail doesn’t align with the lived experiences and circumstances of most people.

To this end, people of color, who are disproportionately prosecuted unfairly under a criminal justice system that targets them for Blackness above all else, may understandably hesitate before trying to illegally—or even legally—acquire abortion pills. We’ve already seen Black birthing people prosecuted at a much higher rate for their pregnancy outcomes. In one study from the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which analyzed 413 cases from 1973 to 2005 in which a pregnant person was arrested, detained, or faced some sort of legal intervention connected with their pregnancy, 59 percent of those cases involved women of color (including, as categorized in the study, African Americans, Hispanic American/Latinas, Native Americans, and Asian/Pacific Islanders). Fifty-two percent of them were African American. In the Southeast, where there has historically been a concentration of such cases, the numbers are even more dire; nearly three-quarters of the cases brought against Black women took place in the South. 

Oriaku Njoku, co-founder of Access Reproductive Care (ARC) Southeast, says that telling people to simply go online, pay upward of $250, and wait for the pills to come in the mail doesn’t align with the lived experiences and circumstances of most people. “They’re not thinking about how Black and Brown bodies are consistently criminalized,” she says. (Njoku uses she/they pronouns.)

Nor are they thinking about how often the physical ailments of Black bodies are also ignored. Njoku experienced this first hand: She grew up in Kentucky as a Nigerian immigrant and endured heavy, painful periods that were repeatedly dismissed by local physicians. It wasn’t until she moved to Atlanta at 36 years old and found a Black OB-GYN that she was finally diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome. Njoku’s experience is just one example of the endless disparities that exist between rural people and those who live in metropolitan areas, between Black bodies with uteruses and white bodies with uteruses, which could impact the accessibility of abortion medication.  

The truth is, a one-size-fits-all solution to abortion access simply does not exist because of the deep, lasting inequalities that exist in this country. Njoku points out that too often, people co-opt the reproductive justice mission without truly engaging with it and examining structural inequalities—like with what self-managed abortion will look like when abortion is no longer a constitutional right. “We’ve got to find a way to have the conversation without whitewashing or watering down the messaging because that is completely opposite from the original intentions of the founding mothers of reproductive justice,” Njoku says. “Access is not the same across the board.”

The team at Plan C has also been discussing ways to acknowledge and respond to these gaps. The national organization, which works to help people who wish to self-manage their abortions obtain mifepristone and misoprostol, has gotten the word out about their service, which comes with legal support, as well as phone and text assistance. They’ve paid for ads that drift to the top of Google searches and appear in the social media feeds of anyone who has been searching online about abortion resources. Perhaps most importantly, they have partnered with local abortion funds and reproductive justice organizations, hoping to position itself as a resource that community leaders can use. “We advocate for all options to be available, we advocate for someone to understand the range of options so that they can make a decision that’s best for them,” says Amy Merrill, co-founder and digital director at Plan C. “There’s going to continue to be a place for the local clinics that are still finding creative ways to serve, there’s gonna be a place for the abortion funds are helping people…it’s going to be a patchwork quilt of resources and as needs being met in all sorts of different ways.” As more legal barriers to care likely continue to crop up, like bans on receiving abortion pills through the mail, that patchwork will be even more necessary. 

“There’s a lot of generational trauma and PTSD on the part of our elders, and they might not know how to talk about sex and consent and normal bodily functions with the young people in their lives.”

Even in a post-Roe America, the only way to really meet people where they are with the care that they need is through community-based organizing. ARC Southeast and Indigenous Women Rising (IWR) and other peer organizations are working to fund abortion and to educate traditionally marginalized communities about sex.

The communities that are most affected by the loss of federally protected abortion access must be centered in discussions about solutions, says Rachael Lorenzo, executive director at IWR. (Lorenzo uses they/them pronouns.) Empowering people with knowledge is a crucial part of that work. “We try to build our organization to build abolitionist values into our practice, and the concept of Land Back and how important our connection to the land is, as indigenous people, as the original stewards of the land, and how that plays into our reproductive health,” they say. “That means educating our relatives on forced sterilization, on picking up on cues of potential coercion around contraception,” for example. 

It’s hard to imagine the community Lorenzo describes as having the resources, broadly, to order pills and self-manage their abortions, in addition to the stigma and historical wounds they already endure. “There’s a lot of generational trauma and PTSD on the part of our elders, and they might not know how to talk about sex and consent and normal bodily functions with the young people in their lives,” explains Lorenzo. Moving forward, IWR is hoping to expand its services, including, for instance, into midwifery. “Part of what we do is making sure that we’re creating space for them to use their own words, their own tradition and culture and oral history to be able to connect with people in their lives about sexual health.” 

All of this is not to say that medication abortion shouldn’t be an option for everyone—rather that it cannot be the only option. 

New Fiction to Help Us Reenvision Real Problems

Several of 2022’s most anticipated novels offer unique perspectives on society’s thorniest issues, from racism to workplace harassment. Call it a summer fiction reading list for the socially engaged.

Diary of a Void, by Emi Yagi

Ms. Shibata is never officially assigned the menial tasks of her workplace—making coffee, tidying, answering the phones—but since she’s the only woman on staff, her colleagues expect her to oversee them. Annoyed by the tedious sexism, Shibata announces that she is pregnant and unable to continue the extra work. We follow her fake pregnancy week by week, and though there is no child, something real grows within Shibata. Yagi’s debut, translated from Japanese, is more than its unique and amusing premise; it’s a surreal, engrossing meditation on loneliness, womanhood, and what it actually means to have a work-life balance. —Ruth Murai

A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times, by Meron Hadero

Beyond its familiar framing as a border story, a culture-war story, and a state violence story, immigration is an intimacy story, about what it means to hold: What a suitcase holds, and doesn’t. What a memory holds, and for how long. What a refugee’s notebook holds before it’s taken. And what a future holds for those allowed to pursue one. This richly detailed, subtly impressionistic short-story collection—by the first Ethiopian-born writer to win the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing—pulls at threads of geography, language, generation, race, and gender. “We talked about scars, invisible and visible, instant and latent ones, all real,” a character recounts. “He gave me a leather journal so I would always have someone to talk to, if only the blank page.” Hadero’s page shines. She brings to bear aspects of her own path from Ethiopia to Germany to the United States, expanding instead of narrowing the range and representation of immigrant experiences. If displacement is a story of holding, it’s also, in Hadero’s telling, a holding of hope that readers and reporters, refugees or not, will unpack tropes instead of resort to them. —Daniel King

The Employees, by Olga Ravn

God died, and soon the Earth will too, but in this Danish dystopian novel told in vignettes from laborers floating on a spaceship in the 22nd century, work remains. The narrative takes the form of an internal audit of productivity aboard the ship. Workers, both humans and “humanoids,” record what the author has called “little testimonies,” which mix corporate speak with the banal and even poetic. “I’ve developed disproportionate strategies in dealing with emotional and relational challenges,” one worker explains, “but I know that I’m living. I live.” The usual sci-fi question remains—what makes us human?—but this time the robots are red herrings. I guess I’d ask: How was work today? Do you feel alive? —Jacob Rosenberg

The Immortal King Rao, by Vauhini Vara

In this mind-bending tale, society has splintered in two. On one side is the Shareholder Government, devoted to “Social Capital” and ruled by a master algorithm; on the other, the Blanklands, islands populated by anarchist Exes. Athena’s father, inventor of the algorithm, has injected her with his memories. As she pieces together his rise, from son of a Dalit coconut farmer to global superstar, she, and we, must make sense of the price of technological conquest. Vara, who identifies as a Dalit writer, intricately layers together an epic family saga with an inquiry into capitalism’s limitations and an eerie imagining of where tech may take us. Prescient, considering she began it years before Meta ruled the world and Elon Musk began trying to embed computer chips in our brains. —Maddie Oatman

The Last White Man, by Mohsin Hamid

When Anders awakes and sees that his white skin has turned brown overnight, his first emotion is confusion. But the feeling quickly morphs into rage and panic. He calls out of work and tries to remain inconspicuous, at first telling only his childhood-friend-turned-lover Oona of his transformation. Eventually, the condition begins to spread, as more and more white people suddenly find themselves no longer white. Anders and Oona must navigate this changing world as well as grapple with their own identities and perceptions of others. Hamid, also the author of the Booker-shortlisted Exit West, delivers an emotionally gut-punching exploration of race, privilege, grief, and white anxiety.  —Arianna Coghill

Who Exactly Is Trapped in an “Echo Chamber”?

TV pundits, op-ed columnists, and think-piece writers want the platonic ideal. A sagely figure who views politics from every angle—unconfined by the circumstantial common sense inscribed by their upbringing, geography, or social media algorithm. A perfect Homo omni­viewpointicus. This is a person who does not live in a single “echo chamber.” This is a person of supreme rationality. This is a person who does not exist.

Pundits loathe echo chambers. Nicholas Kristof in a 2016 column wrote a warning of the “dangers of echo chambers on campus.” In 2012, Jennifer Rubin wondered “is the liberal echo chamber a trap?” And in 2020, David Brooks derided the “anti-Trump echo chamber.” The ire is assumed to be so self-evident that the problem is barely explained.

Usually, an echo chamber is described as a winnowed world of homogeneous viewpoints. Take Kristof’s critique. He cites a study by legal professor Cass Sunstein, which found that “when liberal judges happened to be temporarily put on a panel with other liberals, they usually swung leftward,” and vice versa with conservative judges. “It’s the judicial equivalent of a mob mentality,” Kristof concludes. Why this is bad, Kristof never explains. He assumes that there is no true enlightenment in this agreement. In fact, it seems whether a policy is good or bad doesn’t matter. The issue is that a consensus came from a place of political bias.

Of course, Kristof’s liberal and conservative binary is the product of its own bubble thinking. The United States often operates under a limited set of political possibilities, both compared to the rest of the world and the vast array of democratic formations that have existed throughout the history of civilization. One could forgive this as simply being practical. But that makes it all the more interesting to wonder the actual politics of blaming the echo chamber.

Pundits have faulted them for the rise of Boris Johnson, Donald Trump’s 2016 win, and Brexit. In each instance, the problem caused by the echo chamber supposedly stems from limited information. If only people knew the truth. The issue is: That’s not how information actually works.

Take social media. Echo chamber arguments have proliferated, in large part, as means to explain the ways technology has changed politics. Social media is routinely described as inciting the rise of “echo chambers [that] strengthen polarization,” as an article in Wired summed up the research of University of Southern California professor Kristina Lerman. But online, we often actually get more diverse views.

Political scientist Pablo Barberá found, in a 2015 working paper, that even users who follow mostly like-minded people eventually see increasingly heterogeneous ideological accounts. Other academic papers and studies have discovered that social media and the internet often increase the range of views to which people are exposed. Intuitively, this makes sense. The “algorithm” is less likely to create a bubble for you than living in a neighborhood surrounded by Republicans with limited media. At least online if you want to learn what fascist teenagers in Oregon or communist senior citizens in New England are up to, you can do that from the comfort of your home in a solidly red Virginia neighborhood of Never Trumpers.

The problem, then, is not information. It’s politics. What we think of as echo chambers are called by researchers “epistemic bubbles.” University of Utah philosophy professor C. Thi Nguyen notes a subtle distinction between the two: “In epistemic bubbles, other voices are not heard; in echo chambers, other voices are actively undermined.” In our world, we get contrary information; it is just that our “echo-chambered world­view has been arranged to dismiss [it],” explains Nguyen. We see the other side tweeting their argument. It confirms what we already believe—they’re wrong.

Why, then, do some misuse “echo chamber” so pervasively? It might have something to do with the convenience of the term. “Echo chamber” is a meta-­critique. It does not engage with the actual merits or flaws of an argument. Other people are simply deluded reactionaries duped by Facebook. But while privately owned social media companies can influence us, they’re hardly the only things that do. Our core ideologies and values are determined by everything from where we grew up to whom we love, to the actual impact of politics on our lives. Fixing Facebook wouldn’t solve the problem of many echo chambers—your family’s opinions, your friend’s bigoted talking points—even if it’s a good idea.

In a way, those who worry about echo chambers are too hopeful. Many voters really do want Trump, Brexit, and other things that liberals abhor. A lot of people do not care, deep down, about democracy. Better information might not be a panacea for that, even if it would slow down a conspiracy theory like QAnon.

Let’s really imagine this cure, that perfect Homo omniviewpointicus. They are flooded with information. They know all; they see all. They’ve digested each piece of news. And they are full of data. Wait. That sounds kind of like someone who spends all day on Twitter.

The Alternative to Police That Is Proven to Reduce Violence

Roy Sapp had just gotten to work at the Rock Bar in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood when he heard a man shouting outside. It was a Tuesday afternoon in October, and the man, middle-aged and thin with stained gray sweatpants, flailed his arms as he ranted at no one in particular. Sapp wondered if the guy was experiencing a mental health crisis or if he was high: A crack pipe and a meth pipe lay on the ground where he’d been standing. Suddenly, the man threw himself onto an SUV that was driving slowly down the block. “Get out of here, kids!” he yelled after scrambling back onto his feet, blocking traffic. “I’m not gonna hurt anyone!”

Sapp, then 60, looked on in concern. Born just down the street, he had lived in the neighborhood his entire life. Until recently, he had spent decades addicted to drugs, and now he was missing some teeth and one of his eyes. One year sober, he wished he could help the man raving outside, but he didn’t want to dial 911. “I always see people like him and don’t call,” he told me later, as we stood outside the bar. “I don’t want to call the cops on somebody and have them locked up. That’s normally what happens.” 

Sapp hadn’t realized that if he had made the call, it wouldn’t necessarily have been the police who would have shown up. After the George Floyd protests shook the country in 2020, San Francisco started redirecting these sorts of 911 calls to paramedics and trained behavioral health workers. The city’s new Street Crisis Response Team, which responds to unarmed adults in crisis from mental illness, substance use, or homelessness, tries to reduce interactions between the public and the police, to prevent officers from reacting violently to people in these situations.  

Nationwide, cops fatally shoot hundreds of people experiencing mental health emergencies every year. The city’s crisis responders, by contrast, don’t carry weapons. And they don’t have law enforcement backgrounds: Each three-person team includes a Fire Department paramedic, a behavioral health specialist, and a peer support counselor to help connect people with social services. In their vans, they store supplies like blankets, socks, snacks, Narcan, tampons, and toothbrushes. They respond to calls within 16 minutes on average, sometimes spending hours with a single person. Since November 2020, the team has fielded thousands of incidents—and, according to the Department of Public Health, which manages the project, not one has led to a death or an arrest, and fewer than 1 percent have led to violence. 

Peer support counselor Horepa Tautolo (left) and behavioral health clinician Karey Fenderson prepare clothing and other essentials to offer to folks they encounter during their shift on the Street Crisis Response Team.

Amy Osborne

San Francisco isn’t the only place betting that a health-focused crisis response team is the key to reducing unnecessary violence on its streets: Dozens of cities around the country, including Los Angeles, New York, and Denver, have set up similar teams over the last couple of years. Many draw inspiration from a long-running program in Eugene, Oregon, called Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS). Since its start in 1989, CAHOOTS has saved Eugene millions of dollars, according to the clinic that created the program, by freeing up police to focus on more dangerous crimes and by keeping mentally ill people out of jail.

Yet “CAHOOTS isn’t some cookie-cutter [program] that you can just pick up from Eugene and just kind of plunk down” in other cities, Tim Black, who formerly led the program, told US News & World Report in 2020. “Every community is different, every community has unique needs.” That’s true in San Francisco, which is reeling from the opioid epidemic and has a relatively huge homeless population, with an estimated 8,000-plus people, or about 1 in 100 residents, lacking permanent housing. 

And as it tries to scale up its Street Crisis Response Team, the city is confronting a central tension: Residents request the crisis responders by calling 911—a tactic that may have worked in the whiter Oregon town but appears to be alienating some of the Black and brown communities San Francisco seeks to serve.

“Especially this day and age with all the violence by law enforcement toward men of color, you’re worried that if you call 911, it might be the police who show up,” says Hillary Ronen, a district supervisor who represents Bernal Heights. “If we had somebody we could call instead of 911, that would be better,” adds Gwendolyn Westbrook, who leads Mother Brown’s kitchen for unhoused people in the Bayview neighborhood, which has the city’s highest proportion of Black residents. As Tim Black told the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice in 2020, “There’s a lot of privilege that comes along with having a healthy enough relationship with police that you can contact them.”

Lieutenant Jonathan Baxter of the San Francisco Fire Department works with the Street Crisis Response Team.

Amy Osborne

So as San Francisco and other governments experiment with alternatives to the police, they face a dilemma: It’s a challenge to convince enough people to trust the replacements if those replacements are dispatched by 911 and managed by government institutions that have a history of underserving people of color. Some reformers think a model that forgoes the police system altogether would be a better approach. “Large swaths of Black and brown people will never call the police, no matter what crisis is in front of us,” says Cat Brooks, an activist in nearby Oakland who co-founded the Anti Police-Terror Project, a grassroots group that recently launched its own crisis response team that doesn’t partner with law enforcement or use 911. “Because we’re clear they very rarely make things better, and in fact they far more often escalate things, resulting in abuse, incarceration, and in the worst case death.”

Under San Francisco’s current model, when someone calls 911 to request help for a situation that could warrant the crisis responders, there’s always a chance the dispatcher will send police instead, particularly if no paramedics or behavioral health clinicians are available. And the paramedics themselves, once they arrive at a scene, can ask for police assistance if the person in crisis appears violent or armed.

That doesn’t happen often, but it almost did outside the Rock Bar, as Roy Sapp watched the houseless man, who I’ll call Tom, yelling in the street. Someone in the neighborhood called 911, and a red van with the crisis responders arrived just as Tom jumped at the SUV. As I sat observing the scene from a car nearby, one of the responders, Mary Meraw, a paramedic from the Fire Department, lifted her radio and considered requesting police backup, worried he might hurt himself. But then she hesitated, not wanting to involve cops who might escalate things. Maybe, she hoped, her colleagues could calm him down on their own.

The Street Crisis Response Team approaches a man in the street yelling at passing cars. The team received a call through 911 dispatchers, a call that police would have been dispatched to in the past.

Amy Osborne

After calming down the man who was yelling at passing cars (referred to as “Tom” in the story), the crisis responders, including (from left) paramedic Mary Meraw, Karey Fenderson, and Horepa Tautolo, continue to talk with him before offering him food, water, and medical attention.

Amy Osborne

So she let them work. Behavioral health clinician Karey Fenderson made eye contact with Tom and gently motioned him toward the sidewalk, where peer support counselor Horepa Tautolo handed him a water bottle and a snack. Within half a minute, Tom had relaxed. Fenderson and Tautolo, dressed in civilian clothes, stayed with him, holding his belongings while he bent down to tie his shoes. “Then he started engaging with us,” Fenderson recalls. “It just looked like he wanted to get a lot off his chest.”

Tom has his vital signs taken after being talked out of the middle of the street and stabilized by the Street Crisis Response Team.

Amy Osborne

Oregon’s most famous crisis response team emerged from an unlikely pairing of the police and hippies during the tough-on-crime wave of the late 1980s. The hippies worked for the White Bird Clinic, a community health center in Eugene that they’d created in the late ’60s. They had deep connections to the counterculture movement, fundraising at Grateful Dead concerts where their volunteer medics offered treatment to Deadheads on bad trips. They’d long distrusted law enforcement officers, who they believed heightened people’s anxiety rather than calming them down.

So in 1989, members of the White Bird Clinic hatched a plan: Maybe the easiest way for the hippies to protect people from the police would be, counterintuitively, to work with the police. Or at least with police dispatchers. “There were a lot of people who needed the kind of response that police didn’t seem able to provide or didn’t have the training to provide. We started working with the city to figure out a way to have another option available,” says Arlo Silver, the current program coordinator for CAHOOTS. The clinic retrofitted an old van, recruited more medics, and offered to send them instead of the cops to certain 911 calls, like those involving addiction crises, psychotic episodes, and suicidal threats. The name of the strategy, Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets, or CAHOOTS, is a playful nod to the clinic’s discomfort with collaborating with the Eugene Police Department, which they could call for backup if the situation turned violent.

The results were overwhelmingly positive. Because the White Bird Clinic had spent decades building trust with the community and employed people with their own lived experience of drug abuse and other issues, it could handle emergencies with more empathy than law enforcement. By 2019, the medics were responding to 24,000 calls a year, and they said only about 150 required police backup. By handling incidents that cops would otherwise address, the crisis responders have saved the police department between $200,000 and $1.2 million a year, according to estimates from the clinic and the police department. It’s “providing a valuable and needed resource to the community,” a police department spokesperson says.

But it wasn’t until the murder of George Floyd that cities around the country, searching for alternatives to traditional policing, latched onto CAHOOTS. The medics in Eugene became so popular that they developed a formal training course for municipal governments and community groups that wanted to create their own version. Soon, similar programs launched from California to Montana to Colorado to Texas.

San Francisco officials had their eyes on Eugene’s model even before 2020, as a way to respond to the city’s homelessness crisis. As rents continued upward during the past couple of decades and a fentanyl crisis gripped the city, the number of unhoused people swelled to at least 8,000. Tents and bodies in sleeping bags dotted the sidewalks in many neighborhoods, along with needles and excrement. It was so bad that, in 2018, a UN official described the city’s treatment of homeless people as “cruel.”

The next year, as the bleak conditions saw no signs of improvement, medical workers, caregivers, and politicians in San Francisco staged a protest at City Hall and threatened to take it over, leading to two arrests. Weeks later, San Francisco lawmakers unanimously passed Mental Health SF, a law to overhaul the city’s mental health infrastructure. In addition to increasing shelter beds and residential treatment programs and creating a 24-hour mental health services center, it called for a CAHOOTS-style Street Crisis Response Team.

“We’ve had an overreliance on policing for decades, so it’s really good to see responses that are not as reactionary.”

The first team launched in November 2020 in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood known for drug dealing and fatal overdoses and home to the city’s biggest homeless population. Since then, six more teams have launched in other neighborhoods. The police still handle any 911 call involving violence or a weapon. But they offload many of the calls for unarmed adults dealing with a psychotic episode or an addiction-related emergency in a public setting. The majority of people now served by the crisis responders are unhoused. “We can respond to calls of people in crisis with compassion,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed said a year after the first team launched. 

“We’ve had an overreliance on policing for decades, so it’s really good to see responses that are not as reactionary, that actually address the issues and build partnership between community and our systems that are responding to public safety,” Tinisch Hollins, a native San Franciscan who leads the criminal justice reform group Californians for Safety and Justice, tells me. “More listening and more partnership are going to lead us to where we need to be.”

Encouraged by the successful start in the Tenderloin, San Francisco expanded its program by creating an Office of Coordinated Care that follows up with people after they’ve cooled off to link them with treatment and other services. The city also launched separate mobile teams to respond to drug overdoses and conduct wellness checks (in addition to preexisting teams that handle homeless outreach). Local lawmakers loosened their purse strings: During a contentious budget process in 2021, San Francisco supervisors voted to spend $22.8 million on the new mobile teams over two years, while boosting the police’s $668 million budget by millions of dollars less than the mayor proposed. Meanwhile, Congress offered more Medicaid dollars to cities that created crisis response teams like San Francisco’s. But as pandemic-fueled gun violence rose nationwide, even as overall crime dropped, the momentum for street crisis teams has flagged.

San Francisco has seen fewer shootings than many other places. Its homicide rate remained among the lowest for major US cities in 2020. And local police found that assaults, robberies, and rapes decreased during the pandemic. But as viral videos spread online of sprawling homeless encampments, smash-and-grab robberies, and open-air drug use in neighborhoods like the Tenderloin, San Francisco’s leaders came under intense scrutiny, with conservatives painting the city as a failed experiment in progressive policymaking. “It’s turned into Escape From New York, Gotham City–level chaos here,” Jason Calacanis, a former tech journalist and angel investor for Robinhood and Uber, said in 2021 on a podcast he co-hosts. He and some other venture capitalists threw their support behind a massive effort to recall the city’s progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin, who has tried to divert low-level offenders from jails and prisons and direct them toward mental health and substance abuse treatment. 

Paramedic Mary Meraw enters information into the database after she and the team successfully helped a man in crisis.

Amy Osborne

As more Democrats in power called for additional law enforcement to deal with crime, pressure mounted for San Francisco’s small fleet of health-focused crisis responders, still new to their jobs, to prove themselves. “There’s very little room for error,” says Hollins of the reform group Californians for Safety and Justice, noting that the crisis responders have to compete against the prevailing fears about lawlessness. “A lot of it is just pushing back on the narrative that policing right now is where we need to be investing our money.” As they continue to work, the responders must convince lawmakers controlling their funding that they can get results. And for that, they must convince neighbors in the community to call for their services.

Horepa “Repa” Tautolo, who is in her early 30s, grew up in the Bayview and joined the crisis responders in 2021. On the October day I shadowed her, she wore hoop earrings, ripped jeans, and a black sweatshirt that said “Straight Outta San Francisco.” Soft-spoken, with a calm voice and gentle demeanor, she clearly has a high regard for the people she helps. “They’re very intuitive and smart; most folks we come across, they’re very talented,” she tells me. 

Horepa Tautolo works as a peer support counselor with San Francisco Street Crisis Response Team. Tautolo’s lived experiences offer an opening to gain trust and make connections with those in crisis and hopefully move them toward care.

Amy Osborne

To build trust, San Francisco’s crisis responders work with peer support counselors like Tautolo. The idea is to have someone with lived experience who can connect with clients on the street. “This community in particular, they catch up on a lot of, I wouldn’t say fakeness, but they pick up on non-genuinity,” Tautolo says.

This is a unique feature in San Francisco, which, unlike cities like Los Angeles and San Antonio, does not send cops out with its crisis response teams. The thinking is that counselors like Tautolo can more easily bridge the gap with neighbors who might be skeptical of a city-led effort. “The lived experience cannot be understated,” says Kathleen Silk at San Francisco’s Department of Public Health. “The peer on our team can drive a lot of interactions that might otherwise be almost impossible to navigate.” 

San Francisco, unlike cities like Los Angeles and San Antonio, does not send cops out with its crisis response teams.

Prior to getting the job, Tautolo spent time unhoused; she says she views her clients today like her own family. If a person is having a breakdown, she often sits beside them, giving them space until they want to talk. She’ll offer some food, from granola bars to pineapple shortbread, to help them relax. During her first day on the job, she even sang a song for a client, a woman who’d been cursing out the other health workers but seemed drawn to Tautolo. After Tautolo finished a Samoan song, the woman apologized for her outburst. “Everyone loves Repa,” says Fenderson, the behavioral health clinician on her team.

The team’s goal is not just to build trust with individuals in crisis, but with the entire community. “It’s more art than science,” says Meraw, the paramedic who rides with them. When the team began working in the Bayview, they started dropping by restaurants and local businesses to get the word out about their services and brand themselves as an alternative to the police. They reached out to aid organizations like nonprofit Mother Brown’s, which provides hot meals to low-income people. They handed out flyers in different languages, from Russian to Spanish to Cantonese.

Even if someone doesn’t want a shelter bed or drug treatment, the crisis responders try to support them in other ways. “They see that we’re not trying to push anything—we’re not trying to make them do a bunch of stuff they really don’t want to do,” says Meraw. “We’re still there to offer them snacks, a hat, socks. It builds a chance for us to maybe get a little bit further with somebody the next time we see them.”

Paramedic Mary Meraw works with San Francisco Street Crisis Response Team by attending to a person’s immediate medical needs.

Amy Osborne

Karey Fenderson is a behavioral health clinician on the team.

Neighbors noticed and increasingly welcome the responders. “They’re from the community,” Westbrook of Mother Brown’s says of Tautolo and her team, who made a point to show up at the soup kitchen and introduce themselves to her when they were first assigned to the neighborhood.

But not everyone feels comfortable calling for their help, especially given that San Francisco continues to dispatch them through 911—a number that some residents, especially in certain neighborhoods, associate with the cops. The crisis responders receive far fewer 911 calls from the Bayview than from other San Francisco neighborhoods, even though the Bayview has the second-highest number of unsheltered people in the city and far fewer homeless services than headline-grabbing areas like the Tenderloin. On slow days when 911 calls aren’t coming in, Tautolo’s team drives around in their van, scanning for folks who might need assistance, whether they’re yelling on the sidewalk or lying unresponsive on the ground. In the Bayview, they encounter a majority of incidents this way, rather than through 911.

Other cities face similar problems convincing people to dial for help. “It’s something we all kind of struggle with,” says Carleigh Sailon, a social worker in Colorado who helps manage Denver’s health-focused crisis response team. “The mistrust is understood,” adds Nachshon Zohari, an official at Denver’s public health department who also helps manage the team.

And mistrust grows when someone does make the leap to dial for help and then the cops show up instead of paramedics. San Francisco employs just seven crisis response teams across the entire city, with only one of them working overnight. “They are not available when people really need them,” says Westbrook. 

San Francisco employs just seven crisis response teams across the entire city, with only one of them working overnight.

Would another emergency number help? Oregon’s CAHOOTS, which historically dispatched through 911 or the police nonemergency line, is trying to set one up. Residents are worried that “people within the police department will hear their name or address or have information they don’t want [the police] to have,” says Silver, the program coordinator. “That is a barrier. It’s something we’ve been trying to figure out a way around for a long time.” When San Francisco service providers reached out to CAHOOTS’ White Bird Clinic for advice, one clinic staffer said the team wished they had created an alternative phone number from the start. San Francisco is considering doing so but plans to keep 911 as a primary dispatch number for logistical reasons, according to the Department of Public Health. 

In the future, crisis responders around the country might also be dispatched through another national phone number, 988. About two years ago, Congress passed a law to create this three-digit number for people dealing with suicidal thoughts or other mental health emergencies. It launches in July, but governments have done little to advertise it because states are still scrambling to set up call centers. 

But even if San Francisco solves the problem with 911, there’s another challenge. The mobile teams, though not run by the police, are still operated by government agencies that some vulnerable populations don’t trust. Each team includes a Fire Department paramedic clad in an official uniform. “The Fire Department is seen as very institutional,” says Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness. In Oregon, the White Bird Clinic has recommended that crisis teams should instead be run by nonprofits that are unaffiliated with the government and have longstanding relationships with the community.

Other cities are experimenting with that idea: Across the bridge from San Francisco, activists with the Anti Police-Terror Project in Oakland recently launched a free hotline called Mental Health First that dispatches volunteer medics and mental health specialists to people dealing with psychiatric emergencies, substance use, and interpersonal violence. It’s a community-based alternative to the city government’s own model, called MACRO, and it doesn’t use 911. “The way we were gonna reduce incidents of violence and death of our community members at the hands of law enforcement was to reduce the amount of engagement law enforcement has with our communities,” says APTP co-founder Brooks. “It certainly didn’t make sense to use the number that dispatches people who were killing our people in crisis,” she adds. Her model has attracted interest across the country, but for now its volunteers only work on Friday and Saturday nights, with no city or government funding.

San Francisco, in addition to its existing programs, is considering paying for a mobile team that would similarly be run by community nonprofits, to conduct wellbeing checks for homeless people and respond to certain calls dealing with mental illness and panhandling. In the Bayview, Mother Brown’s Westbrook likes that plan. “People would trust it more,” she says. But for now the new team remains largely theoretical, still mired in city-imposed red tape.

And Mayor Breed might be more interested in other strategies. In December, after more viral videos about San Francisco’s drug use, murders, and thefts, Breed announced that she would send extra police to the Tenderloin neighborhood to crack down on lawlessness. “It’s time that the reign of criminals who are destroying our city…come(s) to an end,” she said at a news conference at City Hall, flanked by city officials. She did not mince words. “It comes to an end when we take the steps to be more aggressive with law enforcement, more aggressive with the changes in our policies, and less tolerant of all the bullshit that destroyed our city.”

It was a major shift from a mayor who one year earlier had seemed to support the nationwide calls for a less punitive, less police-driven system of safety. Under her new plan, she pledged to fund more police overtime and order officers to crack down on drug use, while encouraging social workers to provide wraparound services. Her emphasis on law enforcement could “make a lot of people uncomfortable,” she acknowledged at the City Hall news conference. “And I don’t care,” she quickly added. “At the end of the day,” she said, “the safety of the people of San Francisco is the most important thing to me, and we are past the point where what we see is even remotely acceptable.”

Friedenbach was outraged: “She’s bringing back the drug war. Moving to have more police, more arrests, more jail, and more cages is the opposite of where we need to go.”

Flooding the Tenderloin with cops could also backfire in another way. If people expect squad cars and handcuffs, they might be even less likely than before to dial 911 for help. Which is bad news for the crisis response teams, already struggling to convince community members to call for assistance. On a day I shadowed the team in the Bayview, they spent an entire morning waiting for a 911 dispatch, hours passing and no call coming in.

After Tautolo and Fenderson calmed Tom down in front of the Rock Bar, Meraw, the paramedic, invited him to move out of the sun and into the shade of the bar’s awning, where she gently asked to take his vitals. He agreed and continued to ramble quietly, jumping from topic to topic.

“I was just discussing my grandfather’s death,” he said at one point, kneeling while she examined his blood pressure and temperature. Fenderson, the behavioral health clinician, offered to help him get a new blanket. “When was the last time you had something to eat?” Meraw inquired after asking for permission to check his blood sugar. Tom mentioned the snack that Tautolo had just shared with him, and asked what might be considered a high or low blood sugar level. He said he couldn’t remember his age or his birthday.

The team hoped to connect him with a shelter or drug detox clinic. But he wasn’t interested. They made a note to follow up with him later through the Office of Coordinated Care, whose outreach workers scour the city on foot, by public transport, or with their own cars to find people after an initial interaction with crisis responders. They offer to get their laundry done for free, to buy them a warm meal or a coat for the winter. Sometimes they connect them with family members across the country, or help them sign up for housing, detox, food stamps, or California’s Medicaid. If a person declines help, they’ll return again another day, just to check in.

But with only seven OCC staffers for the whole city and so many people in need, they can struggle to find everyone on their list after a crisis. Unhoused clients don’t always stay in the same place, and many don’t have phones, so outreach workers look for them where they were last seen, identifying them based on notes about a colorful tattoo or belongings they were observed with, whether a red tent or a shopping cart or a little dog. A year after the Office of Coordinated Care began ramping up, the outreach workers had connected about one-third of people to services after their interactions with the initial crisis response teams. A small number declined assistance, and another quarter of people could not be found.

Fenderson, Meraw, and Tautolo debrief in the van to compile information about a man they just assisted and his situation on the streets.

Amy Osborne

They face a separate challenge, too: The city lacks enough homeless-shelter beds. As of 2019, San Francisco had just 3,000 beds, at least a couple thousand less than the number of unsheltered people. All together, the street crisis response teams were allocated just three to four shelter beds each day the week I shadowed them. “If there’s no program available for them to enter,” asks Supervisor Ronen, “are we really making the long-term change that will help improve people’s lives?”

Even though Tom didn’t want to go to a detox clinic, he seemed relaxed by the time he said goodbye to the crisis responders, a far cry from when they first encountered him next to the SUV. Tautolo, the peer counselor, asked whether he planned to go look for a bag that he said he’d lost. He nodded. “God bless you all,” Tom said quietly as he walked away.

Sapp, the employee at the bar, continued watching from the sidewalk. He still wasn’t sure he’d call 911 the next time someone like Tom had an episode in front of him, he told me. But if crisis teams can handle every call, Sapp said, it would make a big difference.

“Oh yeah, I’d call a lot more,” he said, standing outside the bar. In his 60 years living in the neighborhood and his decades struggling with substance abuse, he had never seen the city respond to an intoxicated man like that before. “I was amazed by it,” he said. “Yep,” he added, with the crisis responders on his mind, “you guys actually did something good.”

The Most Shocking New Statistic on Mass Shootings

With the recent spate of mass shootings, a wave of public opinion polling has reaffirmed Americans’ well-known views on gun violence. Foremost, those include long-running majority support for comprehensive background checks for gun buyers, including among Republicans and gun owners. Other measures with strong bipartisan support include “red flag” laws for temporarily removing firearms from individuals deemed by a judge to be dangerous, and raising the age requirement to 21 for purchasing weapons. The age issue took on grim new resonance with the 18-year-old perpetrators who unleashed carnage in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, after each had legally purchased AR-15-style semiautomatic rifles and large stockpiles of ammunition.

Recent polls also reflect familiar partisan divisions on gun issues and low expectations that Congress will deliver any legislative changes.

A new poll published by CBS News on Sunday, however, added a jaw-dropping dimension to the national picture. Nearly three quarters of Americans believe we can prevent mass shootings if we prioritize the goal of doing so—yet an astounding 44 percent of Republicans think we just have to accept these gun massacres as part of living in a “free society.”

Accept them? Really?

Even acknowledging that Americans’ views on guns are complex and highly politicized, this is a shocking finding, particularly after a fresh slaughter of school children.

This apparently common perspective among Republicans is more than bleak on its own merits. Recently, I wrote about the ingrained national narrative of resignation about the mass shootings epidemic, in the context of outrage over the chronic failure of Congress to strengthen gun laws. Acceptance of the carnage among Republicans as a fact of American life is a different twist on the theme that “nothing really can be done” about mass shootings—a theme whose repetition may in fact worsen such attacks:

This narrative has become part of the problem itself—in some cases possibly even fueling the escalating cycle of mass shootings. That’s because it validates the recurring violence, framing it as an indefinite feature of our reality.

And mass shooters pay heed. After nearly a decade of studying these attacks and how to prevent them through the work of behavioral threat assessment, I documented extensive case evidence for my book, Trigger PointsThe research shows that many perpetrators are keenly aware of media and political narratives about their actions….They want notoriety, and they seek justification and credibility for their acts of violence. And in the message that America will never stop these mass shootings, they find such affirmation.

“School shootings happen all the time,” remarked a troubled 17-year-old subject of one threat investigation I examined. He had become fixated on watching videos about the 2018 school massacre in Parkland, researched where he might buy a firearm, and later commented that committing such an attack could be an easy way for him to “get famous.”

The CBS poll contains other stark findings. Sixty percent of Republicans believe mental health treatment is key to solving the problem—suggesting that blame on mental illness for mass shootings by the NRA and Republican officials has strong traction with their constituents, despite the fact that such blame is fundamentally wrong and misleading.

Parents throughout America, meanwhile, are profoundly troubled by the recent tragedies. Nearly three quarters are “somewhat” to “very concerned” about gun violence at their kids’ schools. In the aftermath of the massacre at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, a clear majority described themselves as scared, nervous, angry, sad, and stressed in thinking about their children’s well-being. A majority said their children have also felt scared and sad.

It’s important to keep in mind that schools continue to be among the safest places in the United States for kids to be. Additionally, the 72 percent of Americans who do believe mass shootings can be prevented are correct. Beyond the long-term struggle to improve gun laws in ways most Americans consistently say they want, there is a lot we can do as a nation to stop these horrific attacks from happening in the first place, in our schools and beyond.

Boris Johnson Lives to Party Another Day

Boris Johnson, the United Kingdom’s scandal-plagued prime minister, narrowly survived a no-confidence vote today that would have ousted him from his position as the head of the Conservative Party and reshuffled the British government.

But the final tally—211 votes for Boris, 148 to remove him—also demonstrated that the prime minister has lost the support of a broad swath of his coalition and reaffirms that he is in his most precarious position since assuming office. 

Before becoming prime minister, Johnson achieved a level of international notoriety as one of the chief backers of the Brexit campaign to leave the European Union. His blustering persona, loose relationship to the truth, pliable principles, and mop-like hair have earned him repeated (albeit superficial) comparisons to Donald Trump. 

In the face of widespread skepticism, Johnson has nevertheless managed to eke out a series of thread-the-needle-style victories in recent years: As Mayor of London, he helped propel the Brexit campaign to an unexpected win in the 2016 referendum. Three years later, he led the Tories to an overwhelming victory over the Labour Party on a promise to “get Brexit done,” even managing to flip the so-called “red wall” of historic Labour strongholds in northern England. And then he accomplished his central campaign promise by successfully negotiating and passing the Brexit deal that many had deemed impossible. 

Along the way, he earned a reputation as something of a political survivor. “That nothing ever seems to stick drives his opponents mad,” wrote Tom McTague in a 2021 profile of the Prime Minister published in the Atlantic. “Time and again, when controversy has engulfed him, he has emerged unscathed.”

It’s doubly ironic, then, that what ultimately incited today’s vote of no-confidence was a series of parties

Since December 2021, Johnson has contended with a steady drip of reports that he and members of his staff attended raucous parties at 10 Downing Street while the rest of the country was under strict Covid lockdown. Johnson initially denied that his staff had broken Covid restrictions, only for new details to emerge contradicting that account. Johnson’s political future seemed in doubt when it was revealed that he himself had been in attendance at a birthday celebration thrown in his honor (his explanation to Parliament: that he hadn’t known that he was at a party). Johnson’s popularity plunged, and the Tories suffered catastrophic losses in local elections. By Monday, 54 conservative members of Parliament had filed letters urging Johnson’s resignation, enough to set off today’s vote of no-confidence. 

To Americans facing the imminent comeback of a former president who quite literally attempted to overthrow democracy, the uproar over “partygate” might seem quaint, even trivial. But the revelation that Johnson and his staff were flouting Covid rules while ordinary people were being laid off and dying alone in clogged hospitals almost perfectly played into the prime minister’s reputation as a pampered child of privilege with a breezy disregard for protocol. 

Johnson may have survived the immediate challenge to his leadership, but he’ll emerge from today’s vote embattled, with his aura of untouchability evaporated. It’s also worth noting that his predecessor, Theresa May, survived a vote of no-confidence only to be forced out of leadership a year later.

In an interview with LBC, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer noted that the vote would be a devastating blow to Johnson no matter how it played out. 

It’s “the beginning of the end,” he declared. 

Supposed Anti-Pedophilia Lawmaker Hires Person Famously Outcast for Minimizing Child Sex Abuse

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) loves accusing people of supporting pedophilia.

During Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Greene levied the accusation against the Democratic Party and a select group of moderate Republicans, all because of a bad-faith argument that Jackson was lenient when sentencing child-pornography defendants. Greene’s enthusiasm for smearing others as pedophiles isn’t surprising, given her affinity for QAnon and the pedophilia hysteria that goes along with it.

So I guess that makes it “funny,” in a backwards and depressing way, that Greene hired Milo Yiannopoulos as an unpaid intern. Yiannopoulos even posted a photo of his badge to Telegram.

For those blissfully unfamiliar with Yiannopoulos’ comments on sex between children and adults, all you really need to know is that they were bad enough for the editor-in-chief of Breitbart News to call them “indefensible” and “appalling.” Yiannopoulos had defended sex between adults and boys as young as 13 and bashed child sex abuse victims who came forward as adults. He has since said that his comments were an effort to cope with the sex abuse he experienced as a child. Yiannopoulos resigned from Breitbart in 2017.

Since then, Yiannopoulos has gone on to be a fundamental part of a new push from the far-right to fundamentally change the Catholic Church in the United States and across the world. As Kathryn Joyce reported for us earlier this year:

In 2018, [Yiannopoulos] published a book, Diabolical: How Pope Francis Has Betrayed Clerical Abuse Victims Like Me—and Why He Has to Go, that tied his defense of the remarks he’d made—that he’d been glibly processing his own childhood sexual abuse—to the broader crisis in the Catholic Church. Soon, he was welcomed by right-wing Catholic news outlets like Church Militant and LifeSiteNews, and a popular Catholic apologetics YouTube show hosted by firebrand and now anti-vaccine activist Patrick Coffin, which together represent some of the most vitriolic critics of the pope online. In early 2021, Yiannopoulos completed the journey, announcing to LifeSiteNews that returning to a traditionalist form of Catholicism had helped him become “ex-gay,” and he now planned to build a Catholic-based conversion therapy clinic in Florida, to be called the Milo Center.

As Yiannopoulos conducted a publicity tour around the alternative media universe of the Catholic right, he theatrically threw away an engagement ring he called his “sodomy stone” and quipped about the need to “make the Vatican straight again” and “make America homophobic again.” By July, he’d become a regular columnist at Church Militant, where he paired his trademark acidity with a laser fixation on the “cult of homosexualism,” which he described as “a reimagining of a very old, pagan form of worship.” He also claimed that women who miscarry after receiving Covid-19 vaccinations have effectively aborted their children, and declared that “sometimes one feels the only good bishop is a dead bishop.” By fall, he was appearing on Church Militant’s home-shopping network, flogging an $88 “Adoring Virgin” icon—a “good Mary,” Yiannopoulos promised, unlike some less physically attractive depictions—and a CD set of him reading Psalms and Proverbs for $75.

As usual, anything Yiannopouls says should be taken with a grain of salt, given his propensity to troll. That includes his internship. But, come on. There’s an entire section of his Wikipedia page subtitled “Remarks on paedophilia and child sexual abuse.”

What sort of a statement is Greene hoping to make by affiliating with someone whose rhetoric is harmful enough to have gotten him banned from both Twitter and Facebook? And to have gotten him to resign from, of all places, Breitbart?

“So I have an intern that was raped by a priest as a young teen, was gay, has offended everyone at some point, turned his life back to Jesus and Church, and changed his life,” Marjorie Taylor Greene told The Daily Beast. “Great story!”

— Zachary Petrizzo (@ZTPetrizzo) June 6, 2022

If Greene can accuse others of being “pro-pedophilia” for supporting Judge Jackson, does she think she’s immune from being the subject of those same jeers for supporting someone who has actually belittled the experiences of child sexual assault survivors?

A 17-Year-Old Processes Police Sexual Violence in One of the Summer’s Most Anticipated Novels

In May 2016, a secret within the Oakland Police Department exploded into the public eye: Multiple officers were under investigation for sexually exploiting the teen daughter of a 911 dispatcher, including trafficking her when she was underage. The news sent shockwaves across the city, as residents learned that department higher-ups had known about the misconduct for months. The teen, a sex worker known as Celeste Guap, told reporters she had sex with more than two dozen cops in the Bay Area—for money, protection from arrest, and tips about undercover raids. In interviews, she wavered between self-blame and acknowledging the abuse. “Thinking back at it, yeah, you know, I do now see myself as being a victim,” she told one reporter. “Because I do feel I was taken advantage of.” (Four of the officers ultimately pleaded no contest to charges; other charges were dropped and Guap received a settlement from the city.)

To Leila Mottley, a 13-year-old budding poet and writer watching the news from her East Oakland home, Guap’s story was a revelation. Since Mottley was 11, she had been dealing with unwanted attention from men on the street—men who catcalled or whistled at her or even cornered her as she walked home from her bus stop in the rain. As she watched Guap say, “These men preyed on me,” Mottley recalls, “I remember being really struck by it as a young teenager, existing in this city where I had experienced the ways that my body was vulnerable, but didn’t often see it reflected back to me, or even acknowledged.”

“I had experienced the ways that my body was vulnerable, but didn’t often see it reflected back to me, or even acknowledged.”

Mottley, who is Black, had long listened to warnings about cops from her father, who grew up amid the protests of 1960s Detroit. He told stories about being detained without cause, and “all the ways that we can and cannot operate when the police are around, or white people are around.” But “my talks around policing as a kid were never about what policing looks like for women, or sexual harassment,” Mottley says. “No one gets that talk…I think, because, what would you say?”

Six years later, Mottley—now a self-assured 19-year-old with piercing green eyes, a nose stud, and a sprig of lavender tattooed on her arm—has answered her own question with Nightcrawling. The debut novel imagines the inner life of Kiara Johnson, a 17-year-old who becomes a sex worker to afford a rent increase and ends up trafficked by Oakland cops, only to be thrust into a public spotlight when the scandal goes public, just like Guap. Deeply rooted in East Oakland—“where we keep our buildings low to the ground and our feet to the sidewalk”—the novel explores Kiara’s joy and grief and search for belonging in the city she loves. Mottley completed it at 17, immediately after graduating high school early. The Black Southern writer Kiese Laymon has called it “the most compelling book written by an American teenager in my lifetime.”

“I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to write this book in 10 years, and do it the same justice,” Mottley says.

Sidra Greene

Mottley wanted to write the novel in part to shine a light on how women, especially young women of color, experience abuse at the hands of the police. According to an Associated Press investigation, between 2009 and 2014, 990 police officers lost their licenses due to sexual misconduct allegations—a number that experts say barely scrapes the surface. “In the vast majority of jurisdictions, survivors of police sexual violence are pointed in a single direction: the police,” the attorney and abolitionist organizer Andrea J. Ritchie writes in her book Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color. Meanwhile, police unions have fought fiercely to make sure that investigations into sexually abusive cops stay out of civilian oversight. Perhaps that’s why only a few individual cases crest the public consciousness, like Guap’s, or the 2015 trial of Daniel Holtzclaw, who was convicted of sexually assaulting eight Black women in Oklahoma City.

Yet we do know that where there’s one survivor, there are often more. And that those targeted are often underage or extra vulnerable to officers’ authority—people in custody, participants in police explorer programs, or sex workers like Nightcrawling’s Kiara. “What choice did I have, though,” Kiara narrates. “The officers say they ain’t gonna hurt me, that they’ll pay me and, at least half the time, they do. Their guns and tasers have a bigger presence in this room than their bodies and even when I try to say no, they just laugh. They like that I’m young, that I don’t know what I’m doing, and I keep on telling myself it’s only for a while, that they’ll let me stop when I want to.”

Kiara’s voice—simultaneously childlike, lyrical, and fierce—is the most unforgettable element of Nightcrawling. “I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to write this book in 10 years, and do it the same justice,” Mottley tells me in April, over lattes at a Black-owned coffee shop along International Boulevard, the well-known sex work corridor in East Oakland. “I wanted the book to read as a 17-year-old’s writing, because it’s from Kiara’s perspective. We’re supposed to be able to see her as a kid. And I wanted to be able to do that when I could write like that.”

Mottley learned to love language at a young age. Thanks to her father, an arts fundraiser and playwright, and her mother, a preschool teacher, “I was lucky to be surrounded by books that did reflect me,” Mottley points out. In particular, she was entranced by Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, a novel by poet and playwright Ntozake Shange about three artist sisters from the South. It was one of the first stories of Black girlhood that Mottley encountered, written in a style that felt devoid of rules. “I remember feeling the liberation of reading this book,” she says. “Feeling like it was a book that had been written for me.”

“I wanted to have this book recognize that police sexual violence…is in direct conversation to all movements around police brutality.”

Starting in sixth grade, Mottley attended Oakland School for the Arts, where she got top grades and performed in the theater program. In her free time, she wrote poetry about nature and the emotions of middle school, then short stories, and, before long, books. She finished her first novel at 14, her second two years later. (“Practice novels,” she calls them.) “Leila has literally always done it all,” says her childhood friend Magdalena Frigo. She was “literally always so inspiring. And it was never shoved in your face.”

Mottley’s skill with words began to attract public attention after teachers in the school’s literary arts program encouraged her to apply to Oakland’s youth poet laureate program, a competition judged by local luminaries and run through the public library. After two years as a runner-up, Mottley was named the city’s youth poet laureate in June 2018. Two weeks later, a white man slashed the throat of an 18-year-old Black girl named Nia Wilson on an Oakland train. “Every panic attack has become a memorial and yet nothing is buried,” Mottley wrote in a poem afterward. “Every Black woman in Oakland be a walking altar.”

Many of her high school classmates were “SoundCloud rappers who had really big dreams,” and Black Lives Matter protest chants sometimes reverberated through the classroom windows. Experiencing those mass uprisings was “formative,” Mottley says. But she noticed that the call-and-response of “Say her name” for Rekia Boyd or Sandra Bland was often quickly subsumed by lists of men killed by police. “I remember the first time this happened, and being like, ‘Huh,’” Mottley says. “And the second time, and the third time. It reminded me, really, of the way that people do anything to not see Black women. Even movements created by Black women.”

This frustration is echoed by her character Kiara, who leaves the Oakland Police Department headquarters to find a group outside protesting the death of Freddie Gray. “I wonder if they’ll ever chant about the women too, and not just the ones murdered, but the particular brutality of a gun barrel to a head,” Kiara wonders. “The women with no edges laid, with matted hair and drooping eyes and no one filming to say it happened, only a mouth and some scars.”

“I wanted to have this book recognize that police sexual violence—what Kiara experiences—is in direct conversation to all movements around police brutality,” Mottley tells me. It’s a theme she’s returned to repeatedly in her writing. “Sisters, we are entitled to our fear, to that quick pulse at the sound of a siren,” she recited at one Bay Area poetry slam in spring 2018. “Entitled to shout our brothers’ names, risk our lives for them, just as we do for our own. We got scars just as deep, bodies that still ain’t healed.”

After Mottley graduated early from high school to have more time to write, she completed Nightcrawling in a single summer. In Kiara’s story, she explored her own anxiety of existing on the streets of her city, which feel at once like home and a hunting ground. “Especially for Black girls, being a teenager doesn’t make sense. There’s the sexualization, but there’s also the minimization that comes with, ‘Oh, you’re young, you don’t understand anything.’”

She also drew on experiences from her summer job at a preschool, where she wrote between shifts and during naptimes. Having kids around helped her develop Kiara’s relationship with Trevor, a young neighbor whom Kiara takes in after his mother disappears. When they play basketball and bake cakes with syrup, Kiara’s trauma is forgotten, replaced with joy. “I was experiencing every day what being around children does to a person,” Mottley says. “It really does allow us to exist in this, like, childlike state, where every moment is just the moment.”

Trevor is not the only child in Nightcrawling. Kiara is too—or she would be, if anyone gave her the chance. With her father dead, mother in a halfway house, and older brother “shooting his shot” as a hip-hop artist, it falls to Kiara to pay rent. She cares for Trevor and tries to stay in control as she walks the streets at night. Learning to recognize that the police exploitation wasn’t her fault—that she was young and vulnerable—is Kiara’s key to survival. “I wanted to make sure that by the end of the book that she looks to herself instead of looking to other people,” Mottley says, “and that she affords herself what the world hasn’t given her, which is the ability to see herself as a vulnerable person.”

“Especially for Black girls, being a teenager doesn’t make sense,” Mottley says. “There’s the sexualization, but there’s also the minimization that comes with, ‘Oh, you’re young, you don’t understand anything.’” Sidra Greene

It’s something Mottley is working on, too. She spent her freshman year in a “whirlwind” at Smith College, revising her manuscript, finding an agent, selling her book. “She was so diligent and really focused on getting it right,” says Samantha Rajaram, a Chabot College professor who helped Mottley revise the Nightcrawling manuscript. Balancing her writing with schoolwork was challenging, and the whiteness of small-town Massachusetts made Mottley ache for Oakland’s color and vibrancy. After the pandemic sent her home, she decided not to return to Smith after the first semester of her sophomore year. “I spent most of my adolescence doing everything, and losing sleep, and kind of sacrificing my body for it,” she says. “And I decided that I couldn’t do it. I think admitting that kind of saves me.”

Mottley is now writing full time, taking breaks to pole dance recreationally and swim laps, and readying herself for Nightcrawling’s release. “Having people read it is also really strange for me, because it lives inside of me,” she says. “It was just mine, and now it’s not just mine.”

She hopes the novel makes more Black girls “feel a little less lonely,” she says. “I hope that teenagers get to feel like kids a little bit, and reminded that they are kids. Sometimes teenagers don’t want to hear that.”

Kevin McCarthy Sided With Trump After January 6. Trump Just Rewarded Him.

In April, the New York Times revealed that Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader, had told Republican colleagues he planned to ask then-President Donald Trump to resign over his incitement of the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

McCarthy denied the Times report, prompting the reporters’ to reveal audio tapes confirming their story, and revealing him to be a bald-faced liar. That may have embarrassed McCarthy, but it hasn’t hurt his odds of becoming the next Speaker of the House. Nor did it cost him Trump’s support.

Trump endorsed McCarthy on Saturday via his social media site, Truth Social: “He is working incredibly hard to Stop Inflation, Deliver Water Solutions, and Hold Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi Accountable for their catastrophic failures and dereliction of duty,” he wrote.

This endorsement, though nominally related to McCarthy’s reelection bid in California, could prove helpful to McCarthy’s effort to line up right-wing support for a Speaker bid should the Republicans take over the House next year, as they are favored to do.

McCarthy, eager to please Trump’s base, has worked to undermine the Jan. 6 panel and has indicated he will kill it if he becomes House Speaker.

Perhaps not coincidently, Trump’s public support for McCarthy comes just days before the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack is set to hold the first in a series of highly anticipated televised hearings on the rioting, and Trump’s unprecedented effort to use false claims of election fraud to keep himself in office. McCarthy, eager to retain support of GOP voters still loyal to Trump has worked to undermine the bipartisan panel, and has indicated he will kill it if he ends up serving as House Speaker.

In a January 13, 2021 speech, McCarthy said: “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.” 

But when the base stuck with Trump, McCarthy, who did not actually ask him to resign, raced to get back in line. He flew to Mar-a-Lago and got a picture that Trump distributed. McCarthy refused to support the formation of a bipartisan commission to investigate the insurrection. He subsequently attacked as partisan the select committee created by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and stripped Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) of her leadership position after she agreed to serve as one of committee’s two Republicans.

Save America PAC released a readout/picture of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s meeting with former President Trump in Florida today:

“President Trump has agreed to work with Leader McCarthy on helping the Republican party to become a majority in the house.”

— Jenn Franco KESQ (@jennfranconews) January 28, 2021

Trump has previously made clear that his support for McCarthy is a direct reward for fealty—for his rapid retreat from faulting Trump for January 6. “I didn’t like the call,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal, referring to the recorded phone call the Times had revealed. “But almost immediately, as you know, because he came here [Mar-a-Lago] and we took a picture right there—you know, the support was very strong.”

Trump and McCarthy seem to have struck a deal: McCarthy refrains from faulting Trump from attempting a coup, or for inciting an attack that endangered his congressional colleagues and Vice President Mike Pence. In exchange, McCarthy gets Trump’s “complete and total endorsement.” Hope it’s worth it.

As Congress Putters, the Gun Carnage Continues

While lawmakers discuss modest gun-safety measures that Senate Republicans are likely to block, the shooting carnage continue apace.

At least three people were killed and 11 injured Saturday when multiple people opened fire on Philadelphia’s busy South Street. At least three more died in a shooting later Saturday at a club in Chattanooga, Tennessee. For the moment, none of those six victims count as victims of “mass shootings”—a FBI designation that requires four deaths in a single incident. Still, Saturday’s mayhem adds to a seemingly never-ending drumbeat of deadly shootings in America—most quickly forgotten, upstaged by racial massacres like Buffalo and Charleston, or the recent, brutal ending of 19 innocent lives, mostly young children’s, in Uvalde.

Over time, even the most horrific incidents can become a blur: San Ysidro. Jacksonville. Kileen. Columbine. Red Lake. Virginia Tech. Birmingham. Ft. Hood. Aurora. Newtown. Washington Navy Yard. Isla Vista. Charleston. San Bernadino. Orlando. Las Vegas. Sutherland Springs. Parkland. Santa Fe. Pittsburgh. El Paso. Boulder. Buffalo. Uvalde. On and on it goes.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the lead Democratic negotiator in bipartisan talks on measures to curb gun control, said on CNN Sunday that he’s “more confident than ever” Senate Republicans will agree to pass something related to gun violence following the expected House approval of a package more extensive than most Republicans would support.

Don’t bet on it. Murphy’s sets a low bar, in any case. “There are more Republicans at the table talking about changing our gun laws, investing in mental health than at any time since Sandy Hook,” Murphy told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “I’ve also been part of many failed negotiations in the past, so I’m sober-minded about our chances.”

Chris Christie claimed on ABC News Sunday that “both sides create the atmosphere” that prevents compromise on gun restrictions.   The gun control measures Congress is considering cannot, of course, end mass shooting. But as a New York Times analysis this weekend suggests, there is good reason to think that certain provisions, including thorough background checks and limits on high capacity magazines, taken in aggregate, could reduce the frequency and severity of mass—and other—shootings.   But GOP senators will, in all likelihood, use the filibuster, which lets them kill any legislation that can’t garner 60 Senate votes. While former New Jersey governor (and 2016 presidential candidate) Chris Christie claimed on ABC News Sunday that “both sides create the atmosphere” that prevents compromise on popular gun restrictions, the votes against expanded background checks, say, or raising to 21 the minimum age for the purchase of “long guns” (which include most assault rifles), will come largely, if not solely, from the Republican side.    Those lawmakers—and the voters they fear crossing—seem to find this steady stream of mass shootings, mounting gun violence, and an epidemic of gun suicides preferable to tolerating even modest restrictions on access to deadly weapons. Lawmakers, like the rest of us, are defined by actions, not rhetoric. And the revealed preference of the United States Congress in 2022 is to allow regular instances of mass murder. Better that than more background checks.