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As Biden Continues Trump’s War on Asylum, Danger Mounts in the Deadly Sonoran Desert

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 18/04/2021 - 8:00pm in



Diego Piña Lopez stood in the darkened entryway of the repurposed juvenile detention center, chatting with volunteers as night fell. The 31-year-old program director of Casa Alitas, Tucson’s largest migrant shelter, was approaching the end of another 12-hour day. He had hit the road early that morning to drive more than 130 miles west to the unincorporated community of Ajo, where the Border Patrol recently began dropping off vanloads of asylum-seekers. Piña took three of the new arrivals back to Tucson himself. Others rode in vehicles organized by community groups and local leaders.

Casa Alitas’s new guests were settling in as Piña began our tour. We passed through a room that looked like it had once been a guard shack, now converted into a humanitarian operations center. The brick walls of the building were painted purple and pink. What had once been the jail yard was transformed into a community garden. Cells for incarcerated youth were now temporary homes for families seeking refuge in the United States.

As part of the Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona, Casa Alitas was previously based out of a former Benedictine monastery, which could house upward of 300 people. The current space is smaller, with 68 rooms and space for roughly 120 people, though that number has been cut in half due to the Covid-19 pandemic. While the shelter has implemented an array of measures to keep the work going in the face of the coronavirus — creating separate spaces for volunteers, guests, and individuals who have tested positive for Covid-19 — U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees the Border Patrol, has told local officials to prepare for an influx of asylum-seekers two to three times what Southern Arizona saw in 2019, when Casa Alitas provided services to approximately 18,000 people. So far, that has yet to happen.

“The numbers are not where we were back in 2019,” Piña told me. “Yes, we’re busy, but we’re not going crazy. The building’s not on fire.”

Diego Lopez of Casa Alitas in Tucson, Ariz. on Friday, April 9, 2021.

Diego Piña Lopez of Casa Alitas is seen in Tucson, Ariz., on April 9, 2021.

Photo: Ash Ponders for The Intercept

Piña has lived his share of border news cycles. Growing up on the U.S. side of the binational cities of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, he came of age as the border entered a period of unprecedented militarization spurred by bipartisan “get tough” policies, the drug war, and the war on terror. He came to work for Casa Alitas during the Obama administration, at the tail end of the decade’s first large-scale arrival of unaccompanied Central American children and families seeking asylum in the U.S. Though most of the kids came through the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, Arizona received its share of young people seeking refuge as well. The pattern would repeat itself under President Donald Trump. It is now happening again under President Joe Biden.

While Casa Alitas has not seen the same number of new guests that came through under President Barack Obama and Trump, the present moment is not without its challenges.

Walking deeper into the shelter, Piña described a disturbing pattern he’s picked up on in recent weeks. “Thirty percent of the guests coming from certain areas of the border are missing family members,” he said; many were coming through Yuma, on the western edge of the state.

To explain the gravity of the problem, Piña opened WhatsApp, showing me a borderwide shelter group devoted to missing persons. The previous week, during a dinner with a group of new guests, Piña passed his phone around so his companions could see the text group. When it came back to him, seven new names had been added — the missing family members and loved ones of the people he was seated with.

“I lost it when I looked at it,” Piña said. A Honduran woman told him that she and her husband were taken into custody together. After some time, an official pointed at her to go and him to stay. She had no idea where he now was. For Piña, experienced as he is, it was the kind of moment where the right words are hard to find. “We’re seeing that on a consistent basis,” he said. “It’s appalling.”

Diego Lopez of Casa Alitas in Tucson, Ariz. on Friday, April 9, 2021.

The terrain near Casa Alitas in Tucson, Ariz., on April 9, 2021.

Photo: Ash Ponders for The Intercept

With national political and media attention returning to the U.S.-Mexico border in recent weeks, most of the focus has been on the record numbers of unaccompanied children seeking asylum in Texas. Thousands of those children have been moved into facilities well beyond capacity. Republican lawmakers have seized on the moment to file midnight dispatches from the banks of the Rio Grande reporting that Biden and the Department of Homeland Security are presiding over the humanitarian crisis that stems from a break with the policies of Trump. Biden and DHS, in turn, have run with a message that the border is closed and asylum-seekers should stay away until further notice.

The processing of unaccompanied children in the United States presents clearly urgent questions of human rights, law, and policy. It is also just one facet of the larger story of Biden’s first months in office on the border.

Asylum-seekers themselves described profound feelings of vulnerability and fear with no end in sight.

Through interviews in migrant shelters and border communities in Arizona and Sonora, The Intercept found that the Biden administration’s continuation of Trump-era policies — particularly the choking off of asylum access at U.S. ports — is making one of the deadliest stretches of the U.S.-Mexico divide more dangerous, endangering the people the president purports to support and enriching the illicit networks he purports to oppose. In Nogales, data compiled in intake interviews on the Mexican side of the border and shared with The Intercept suggests a sharp rise in violence and extortion targeting migrants and asylum-seekers over the past year by organized crime and Mexican security forces, as well as an explosion in the previously prohibited practice of Border Patrol agents dropping people off in dangerous locations in Mexico in the middle of the night. Shelter operators on both sides of the border reported routinely seeing cases of families separated by U.S. authorities. Asylum-seekers themselves, some of whom have been waiting months or years to make their case in the U.S., described profound feelings of vulnerability and fear with no end in sight.

As a presidential candidate, Biden attacked Trump’s policy of “zero tolerance,” in which more than 5,000 children were taken from their parents at the border, as a stain on the moral fabric of the nation. The president-elect promised a humanitarian approach, one that upheld “the dignity of migrants” and “their legal right to seek asylum.”

The damage the Biden White House committed itself to undoing was immense. Though Trump ordered an end to zero tolerance, his administration replaced the policy with an equally punishing program known as “Remain in Mexico.” More than 71,000 people were forced to wait out their cases in Mexico, often in the border’s most dangerous cities, where migrant kidnappings are big business. In the span of two years, the number of documented cases involving individuals enrolled in the program who experienced some form of violence — assault, rape, kidnapping, torture, murder — was double the roughly 1.5 percent of individuals who were granted refuge.

Diego Lopez of Casa Alitas in Tucson, Ariz. on Friday, April 9, 2021.

A cross is seen in the desert in Tucson, Ariz., on April 9, 2021.

Photo: Ash Ponders for The Intercept

With the onset of the coronavirus, Trump’s top immigration adviser, Stephen Miller, imposed a full-on asylum lockdown. Title 42, the obscure Centers for Disease Control and Prevention law that Miller relied on, was implemented over the objections of public health professionals at the agency. Under the rule, Border Patrol agents can summarily “expel” individuals, including asylum-seekers, back to Mexico after an “encounter” in the field without a hearing. The entire process often takes less than two hours. It’s been used more than half a million times in the past year, with more than 637,000 expulsions and counting, including the removal of at least 13,000 unaccompanied children. According to data obtained by CBS News, of the hundreds of thousands of people — including tens of thousands of families — processed through Title 42 in the past year, 0.3 percent have been given an opportunity to make their case in the U.S. As Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Counsel, recently noted, “far fewer families have so far been permitted to seek asylum today than under the Trump administration in 2019.”

While Biden ordered an end to Remain in Mexico on his first day in office, he’s kept in place Title 42, the most sweeping barrier to asylum access on the border in U.S. history. The Intercept sent the White House a detailed list of questions concerning conditions observed in Mexico resulting from Title 42. The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment, leaving open the question of how extending Miller’s crowning border achievement comports with the president’s vows to break with the legacy of his predecessor.

CBP confirmed to The Intercept that the nighttime drop-offs happening in Nogales and ports across the country are a direct result of Title 42 and part of a borderwide shift that began last year, which has seen the Border Patrol summarily expelling people, including families with young children, to places that previously did not receive individuals removed from the United States — including towns controlled by organized crime with no transportation services.

“There’s an agreement between Mexico and the United States as to when and where people will be returned under Title 42,” John Mennell, CBP’s supervisory public affairs specialist in Arizona, told me. This agreement is distinct from prior agreements between the two countries that have governed the repatriation of individuals onto Mexican soil for years, which typically limit removals to certain ports and prohibit releasing people between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Whether this agreement exists in writing or is informal is unclear — neither the Department of Homeland Security nor Mexico’s immigration office would say. What the public generally fails to understand, Mennell said, is that when people are encountered by Border Patrol agents in the desert under Title 42, the system is designed to unfold outdoors — typically at a Border Patrol “forward operating base” — as quickly as possible. “It’s only if you’re going to be detained and released into the interior or turned over to ICE or turned over to an NGO that you might go to a Border Patrol station,” he said. “Everybody that gets expelled goes right back to the border.”

“So a lot of these single males that we’re catching here in Arizona, yeah, they’re going back — at all hours,” Mennell said. “The whole idea is not to be transporting people. It’s to expel them where they entered as quickly as possible.”

Title 42’s implementation is under fire in the courts, with advocacy groups arguing that it is a thinly veiled scheme to deny asylum-seekers their rights. Despite Homeland Security’s position that Title 42 is needed to stem the cross-border spread of Covid-19, hundreds of thousands of people continue to pass through the nation’s ports every day. In November, a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to stop expelling unaccompanied children under the rule. The decision was overturned, but Biden chose not to renew the policy. Beyond that, the Biden White House has been clear in its desire to implement Title 42 in as sweeping a manner as possible. In his first press conference as president, Biden himself indicated that contrary to Title 42’s public health justifications, its purpose was to stop migration.

“We’re in negotiations with the president of Mexico,” the president said. “They should all be going back.”

Mexico has complicated the administration’s efforts by declining to accept certain populations of would-be expellees. In the Arizona-Sonora area, those populations have generally included Cubans, Brazilians, and until very recently, Venezuelans. According to Mennell, the “vast majority of people apprehended in Arizona are still expelled under Title 42, to include families, unless it’s from a demographic that Mexico will not accept.”

As for family separations resulting from Title 42, Mennell said any number of reasons could explain why individuals might be split up. In the case of a husband and wife, for example, “she could be from a country that they’re not accepting but he was from a country that they were accepting. There’s a myriad of reasons why two single adults, who were traveling together, though they might be married, might be dealt with differently.” A positive Covid-19 test would not be a factor, he added: “It wouldn’t matter to us because we would either release them or send them back before they were tested for Covid.”

In addition to expulsions, Title 42 makes applying for asylum at the ports impossible for most people, raising the likelihood that desperate individuals and families will try their luck in the desert. With record-setting heat, more migrant remains were recovered in Arizona in 2020 than any year in the past decade. More than 3,200 people have lost their lives trying to cross the deserts of Southern Arizona since the mid-1990s. In November, federal law enforcement officials told the Arizona Republic that Title 42 had led to a return to the “dark days” of human smuggling in the state.

 effectively doubling the population in less than a year.

Abandoned clothing is seen in the U.S.-Mexico border town of Sasabe, Mexico, on April 2, 2021.

Photo: Ash Ponders for The Intercept

The complicated and patchwork ways in which Title 42 has manifested on the ground has spurred confusion as to exactly what is happening at the border. Because Title 42 expulsions are not formal deportations, single adults often try to enter the U.S. again, meaning that recent apprehension numbers include individuals making multiple attempts to enter the U.S. The discussion of these numbers often obscures the fact that most of those people never enter the immigration system — let alone the interior of the United States — in any meaningful way.

“Every time we do some of these policies, we just further the problem.”

Humanitarian aid providers on the ground say that as long as Title 42 remains in place, so too does one of the most consequential facets of the Trump era on the border: denied access to asylum.

“You’re essentially rebuilding that same problematic system that Trump had,” Piña said. Until there is a safe and viable mechanism for people to seek asylum in the United States, he argued, violence and suffering south of the border will continue. “The cartels, the police — everyone extorts them,” he said. “Every time we do some of these policies, we just further the problem.”

Kino Border Initiative assists thousands of migrants in Nogales on both sides of the US/Mexico border in Nogales, Ariz. on Friday, April 9, 2021.

The U.S.-Mexico border wall is seen from Nogales, Ariz., on April 9, 2021.

Photo: Ash Ponders for The Intercept

Esmerelda sat with her hands folded in her lap in the common area of the comedor. It was morning at the Kino Border Initiative’s shelter in Nogales, Sonora. Two lines of people filtered into the two-story building: new arrivals, virtually all of them expelled under Title 42, and return visitors. The crowd skewed young — families with young children and young men on their own. The new arrivals, many still wearing the dusty desert clothes they were apprehended in, checked in at the intake desk, unpacking their stories before grabbing a plate of hot food and heading for the showers.

Esmerelda was not a new arrival. She and her family came to Nogales in November 2019, fleeing violence and persecution in their home state of Guerrero. As a front line in Mexico’s Dirty War, Guerrero was the site of staggering state violence from the 1960s through 1980s. More recently, the state came to symbolize the terror and violence of the drug war. In 2014, it was the site of one of the worst atrocities in the nation’s history: the enforced disappearance of 43 college students by Mexican security forces and organized crime. Today Guerrero is a known “epicentre of organised crime in Mexico, with more groups jostling for turf than in any other single region,” the International Crisis Group noted in a 2020 report, adding that collusion between police and organized crime in the state is “rampant.”

For Esmerelda and her family, it was the murder of her husband’s father and the threats that followed that sent them north. Nearly two years after she first presented herself at the port in Nogales, she’s still waiting for an opportunity to make her case. Esmerelda and her husband, along with their four children as well as two nieces and their kids — 13 people in total — have crammed themselves into a tiny apartment not far from the shelter. In the past couple months, la mafia has assaulted her husband twice, she told me, robbing him, stealing his phone, telling him that if speaks up he will be murdered. There’s an idea along the border that Nogales is a safer city for migrants, she said: “A lot of people say it’s calmer.” While that may seem true from the outside, the lived experience is something else entirely. “You have no value here — it’s dangerous,” she said. “We know that the police are colluding with organized crime.”

“They think that we’re with the guides who bring the people,” Esmerelda said. To be with the guides, as she put it, is to occupy a position in the violent power struggles that color so much of the illicit movement of people and things along the border: It’s a signal of affiliation. It’s a problem, Esmerelda explained, because it’s not true. “We aren’t guides,” she said. “We’re asylum-seekers. We want to enter. We don’t bring people. That’s what they think, that’s why we’re threatened.”

“You have no value here — it’s dangerous. We know that the police are colluding with organized crime.”

When Esmerelda and her family came to the border, the Trump administration was still using a tactic known as “metering” to strangle asylum access at the ports. An investigation by the DHS Office of the Inspector General would conclude that the practice was built on lies that ports were at capacity when they were not, including in Nogales. Esmerelda had no way of knowing that at the time; her family was doing what top U.S. officials had publicly said they should do, seeking asylum the “right way” by applying at a port of entry.

In time, metering was overtaken by Remain in Mexico, which was overtaken by Title 42. When the Biden administration began dismantling Remain in Mexico at the beginning of the year, it started with cases out of Texas and California. The same has not been true in Arizona. “I have no indication that it’s going to start here,” Mennell, the CBP official, told me. Because she’s a Mexican citizen, Esmerelda was never in Remain in Mexico. The metering list she was on has effectively disappeared, and with Title 42 still in place, the list’s potential relevance in the eyes of the Biden government is in doubt. Even if she and her family were permitted entry into the U.S., they would face an uphill battle: It is notoriously difficult for Mexicans to win asylum in the United States. For now, and for the foreseeable future, she and her family are stuck.

Esmerelda has two U.S. citizen children living with her in Nogales. They refuse to cross the border without her. For her 16-year-old daughter, who had hopes of becoming of a doctor, the stress of an uncertain life in the border city has been brutal. She’s largely stopped eating, Esmerelda said, and begun to engage in acts of self-harm. “She had a dream,” Esmerelda said. As a mother, Esmerelda is doing her best to hold it together. She puts on a strong face so her kids don’t see her sad, she said, but it’s not easy. “Psychologically, I’m not good,” Esmerelda said. “I’m sitting here in Nogales with the problems I brought from Guerrero, thinking about what happened there, what’s happening here.”

While the Biden administration has hammered on a public message of “don’t come” to would-be asylum-seekers, three of the four people I interviewed in Nogales were already at the border when the president was sworn in. José, from Ecuador, arrived six months ago. Emily, from Guatemala, made it to Nogales in February. Both described direct threats of violence against themselves or their families as the principal motivation for packing up and heading north — “We had no other option,” Emily told me — and both said they felt unsafe in Nogales. “I’m very afraid,” José said.

Nedy, a 22-year-old from Guatemala, had a different story. He could tell people he was fleeing violence and persecution, he explained, but that wouldn’t be true. The truth was that he needed money. His father had a heart condition, and he required an operation. Nedy made a promise to help. He spent 22 days on buses that took him from southern Guatemala to the Sonoran Desert. He crossed the border with a group but was soon abandoned. He wandered for three days without food or water. “Three days in the desert without guides,” he said. “With nothing.” At one point, he tried flagging down a drone that passed overhead. He eventually found a road, and a passerby gave him food and water before he was taken into Border Patrol custody and expelled. It was then, he learned, that his father had died.

In an interview later that afternoon, Joanna Williams, KBI’s executive director, painted a grim picture of the landscape for asylum-seekers in Nogales.

Kino Border Initiative assists thousands of migrants in Nogales on both sides of the US/Mexico border in Nogales, Ariz. on Friday, April 9, 2021.

A Border Patrol vehicle is seen in Nogales, Ariz., on April 9, 2021.

Photo: Ash Ponders for The Intercept

Through intake interviews conducted at its shelter, KBI tracks abuses experienced by migrants on both sides of the border, including kidnappings, threats, extortion, abandonment in the desert, and nighttime expulsions. KBI is particularly concerned about the nighttime expulsions.

“It’s been relentless,” Williams told me. According to shelter data shared with The Intercept, there were 14 instances of nighttime expulsions reported in January, 33 in February, and 23 in March, making for 70 instances of night expulsions in 90 days, as compared to zero in the first three months of 2020.

Nighttime expulsions frequently involve more than one person, Williams noted: Shelter guests often report being returned in groups of around 30 people, though some have numbered up to 100. That would suggest that the number of people expelled at night in Nogales during Biden’s first months in office could range from several hundred to several thousand, though it’s important to recall that KBI’s data only reflects the people who were able to find the shelter and report what happened, meaning it is an undercount of the true number of individuals impacted. And this is only in the city of Nogales. As Animal Político, a Mexican news outlet, noted in an investigation published in February, nighttime removals have been happening in some the “most remote and dangerous” locations for migrants on the border for more than a year now.

Williams added that KBI is “regularly seeing” expulsions at 2 in the morning. “It’s uniquely frustrating to us as an organization because we fought for years to restrict the hours of repatriation here,” she said. “They’re supposed to be from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., and now it’s any time.” When people are expelled in the middle of the night, there are no Mexican immigration officials to receive them, Williams explained. While on paper there are populations that the Mexican government will not accept, “when they’re sending them back at 2 in the morning, there’s not a Mexican official on the south side to object to it.”

Even during daytime hours, the Mexican government is not registering the individuals and families expelled under Title 42, Williams explained. Budget cuts have decimated Mexico’s primary immigration agency. Grupos Beta, a component of Mexico’s National Institute of Migration created to provide humanitarian aid to migrants, “barely even has money to put gas in their cars,” she said. “There’s no rhyme or reason, at least that we can tell, of who’s being released,” she added. In one recent case, a man who turned up at the shelter said he had been pressured by drug traffickers to carry a load across the border. “The drug cartel was trying to force him to carry drugs, and he refused,” Williams said. “He wanted to give the Border Patrol information.” According to Williams, the man was told that would take too much time because it involved filing a police report. He was expelled.

For years, asylum at the ports has served as a “safety valve” for people who were wrongly removed.

Like Casa Alitas in Tucson, KBI has documented “multiple cases” of families separated under Title 42. Just that morning, Williams had spoken to a Cuban man who was expelled from Texas while his wife was moved into a detention center. For years, asylum at the ports has served as a “safety valve” for people who were wrongly removed, Williams explained, “an option to turn yourself in without paying a smuggler.” Under Title 42, that safety valve is all but gone. To get an asylum-seeker through the port now requires going through CBP headquarters. “We have fought tooth and nail for certain individuals who are particularly vulnerable — I think we’ve gotten two people in through that after months and months of work,” Williams said. “That’s two people out of the hundreds who are waiting.”

As it was with Trump, Biden’s continuation of Title 42 elevates the risk for asylum-seekers waiting in Mexico with each passing day. “We’re just hearing more and more accounts of assaults and robberies,” Williams said. A review of abuses reported in Nogales in the first three months of 2020, the months immediately preceding the onset of Title 42, and the first three months of 2021 shows substantial increases in every category except for those related to detention, which is largely nonexistent due to the new rule. According to the data, reported kidnappings in the first three months of 2021 were double what they were one year prior. There were more than four times as many reports of migrants and asylum-seekers being threatened; five times as many reports of extortion; and eight times as many reports of people being abandoned in the desert.

Criminal groups in Nogales are only part of the problem. More than half of the extortion cases reported by migrants and asylum-seekers in 2021 were attributed to Mexican security forces, most hailing from the federal government.

For two consecutive presidential administrations, the U.S. relied on foreign security forces to suppress migration flows. The outsourcing led to systemic human rights abuses under both Obama and Trump. Last week, the Biden administration announced that it is continuing that model, having secured agreements with the governments of Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala to deploy thousands of troops to their own borders. Biden press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters, “The objective is to make it more difficult to make the journey.”

The news came less than two weeks after a Mexican soldier shot and killed a Guatemalan migrant at a checkpoint on the nation’s southern border and just four months after an elite U.S.-trained Mexican special operations unit massacred 19 people, including at least 14 Guatemalan migrants, on the nation’s northern border. KBI intake interviews indicate that abuses by migrant interdiction forces are already cropping up in northern Sonora, Williams said, particularly in the mountains outside the town of Sasabe, where smugglers often stage migrants before setting off north.

“National Guard will come in and rob them and beat them up and burn their belongings, never actually detain them, but harass them basically,” Williams said, referring to a quasi-military component of the Mexican federal government that has served as President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s anti-migrant shock troops. Based on the accounts of individuals who’ve reported being robbed, she added, “they’re profiting enormously out of it.”

 effectively doubling the population in less than a year.

A sign in Spanish reads “Bienvenidos a Sasabe” on the Mexico side of the U.S.-Mexico border town of Sasabe on April 2, 2021.

Ash Ponders

The Mexican community of Sasabe lies about 80 miles west of Nogales, beyond the Tumacacori Mountains on the other side of the Altar Valley. With a population of around 1,500 people, it is a well-known smuggling town controlled by organized crime. In recent weeks, areas surrounding Sasabe have transformed into a “war zone,” El Universal reported in mid-March, with factions linked to the Sinaloa Cartel reportedly vying for control of the territory.

For years, Gail Kocourek, a volunteer with the Tucson Samaritans, has brought humanitarian aid to Sasabe. She has twice embarked on a weeklong walk to honor the lives of migrants lost to the desert that begins in the border town and continues nearly 80 miles north to Tucson. “I don’t know what it is about this community,” she told me. “It’s a poor little run-down community that I just love.”

Last year, Kocourek invited two experienced humanitarian aid providers to join her on a visit to Sasabe. Sister Judy Bourg, a nun with the School Sisters of Notre Dame, spent a decade working in Guatemala in the 1980s and 1990s. Dora Rodriguez crossed the border herself as a refugee fleeing the civil war in El Salvador and nearly perished in the process; today she runs Salvavision, a nonprofit that coordinates aid and support to asylum-seekers, people in immigration detention, and individuals who have been deported.

 effectively doubling the population in less than a year.

Migrant advocate Dora Rodriguez, left, and Tucson Samaritan Gail Kocourek are are seen in Sasabe, Mexico, on April 2, 2021.

Photo: Ash Ponders for The Intercept

What the women found in Sasabe took all of them by surprise. After witnessing an expulsion from the southern side of the port one afternoon in early September, the trio followed a group of migrants behind the local Grupos Beta office. Rounding a corner behind the building, they came upon some 40 migrants sitting on a concrete slab surrounded by Mexican soldiers holding rifles. As the women soon discovered, the Border Patrol was making upward of 700 expulsions a week, including families, through what was historically Arizona’s quietest port. Mexican military units, meanwhile, were rounding up migrants in the mountains outside town. The three women and their organizations quickly mobilized a response, bringing biweekly loads of food and humanitarian aid supplies to Sasabe.

Four months after The Intercept first reported on the practice, Mexico’s immigration office called on CBP to stop expelling people through Sasabe on account of the absence of security in the area. Today the expulsions continue at a rate of roughly 200 a week, Rodriguez said — lower than last year but still far higher than anything the town saw pre-Covid-19. Mennell, the CBP spokesperson, acknowledged that Sasabe was not used for removals prior to Title 42, though he added that “the people who are being expelled through Sasabe also entered in that general location, so it’s not like we’re taking them back to some place they’ve never been.” He described the remote crossing as having “the most restrictive hours of any of the locations where we return people” and said nighttime expulsions were not happening there.

Like Nogales, Sonora, Sasabe is home to a port where asylum-seekers are systemically rebuffed. And like Ajo, Arizona, Sasabe is receiving a population of people that it has no resources to support. Unlike those other locations, however, in Sasabe there is neither a well-run migrant shelter nor a network of committed volunteers waiting to receive people expelled by the U.S. government. There’s not even a bus station. Instead, there are smuggler stash houses and taxis managed by organized crime. The best that an asylum-seeker who climbs into one of those vehicles can hope for is that they will only be price gouged.

In an attempt to fill the humanitarian void, the Tucson Samaritans and Salvavision, through Kocourek and Rodriguez, have been working with local contacts to open a migrant welcome center within eyesight of the port, hoping that if it’s close enough to the border, people can reach the building on foot before being snagged by smugglers or kidnappers. “Casa Esperanza,” the name they have given to the new facility, is slated to open next month. The Intercept joined Kocourek and Rodriguez on a recent visit to the site.

 effectively doubling the population in less than a year.

Dora Rodriguez unlocks the gate at Casa Esperanza, a new facility in Sasabe, Mexico, to assist the thousands of migrants pushed into the town, on April 2, 2021.

Photo: Ash Ponders for The Intercept

Crossing the border into Mexico, Kocourek and Rodriguez stopped at the Grupos Beta office to unload pallets of water and food. Expulsions had been steady, the young Mexican official supervising operations told me, with the Border Patrol dropping people at the port day and night. Humanitarian deliveries to the mountains outside Sasabe, where KBI has received reports of the Mexican National Guard shaking down migrants, had been halted in recent days — the fighting there was too intense.

Rodriguez was on a mission to deliver legal documents to a young Salvadoran mother and her 13-year-old daughter. The pair fled after the mother, a street food vendor, failed to pay la renta — extortion money — to the local gang. The mother received text messages warning that if she didn’t pay up, she would never see her daughter again. The two crossed the border a year ago this month and were promptly expelled back into Sasabe in the middle of the night. The materials Rodriguez carried would consecrate a vanishingly rare and precious thing for asylum-seekers on the border: legal representation by an attorney in the U.S. The plan was to meet at the office of Martha Imelda Arce Burgos, the mayor of Sasabe, where Rodriguez would collect the signatures.

“We started to have 100 people a day. Men. Seniors. Minors. Children. Pregnant women.”

Maestra Martha, as she is known in Sasabe, took a seat at her desk as we waited for the family to arrive. With a blue medical mask covering her face, she described how Title 42 changed her community. Prior to the pandemic, Sasabe did not receive deportations. “Never,” Arce told me. Then came the spring. “We started to have 100 people a day,” Arce said. “Men. Seniors. Minors. Children. Pregnant women.” Arce, who said she considered the expulsions a form of punishment, estimated that Sasabe received around 10,000 people during a six-month period.

CBP could not say whether this estimate was accurate; the agency is not tracking how many people it is expelling through individual ports.

“A lot of the people who were deported, they didn’t go back to their city of origin,” Arce said. “They stayed here.” Arce estimated that more than 2,000 people — roughly one-and-a-half times the community’s preexisting population — have settled in Sasabe since Title 42 went into effect.

Eventually the mother and daughter entered through the mayor’s open door. Rodriguez laid the legal documents out on the desk and explained what they meant. The mother followed along, listening carefully as Rodriguez described her rights. She signed the paperwork, thanking the women for what they had done.

 effectively doubling the population in less than a year.

Julio, a migrant from Guatemala, walks along the highway in Sasabe, Mexico, on April 2, 2021.

Photo: Ash Ponders for The Intercept

As we pulled through the port, back on U.S. soil, a Border Patrol vehicle backed in. Five people exited the back, crossing the line into Mexico. As we continued north, the outline of a solitary figure ambling along the highway came into view. Kocourek hit the brakes. His name was Julio. Like Nedy, the young man in Nogales, he was a 22-year-old from Guatemala. He had been separated from the group he was traveling with three days earlier. Twenty-four hours had passed since he had anything to eat or drink. He had 10 miles to go before reaching anything resembling civilization. We gave him food and water — Rodriguez explained that giving him a ride could land us in prison — and wished him luck. As we continued on, a helicopter passed low over our vehicle, headed straight in his direction.

A few days later, Rodriguez received word that the Salvadoran mother and daughter, now represented by an attorney, would be given the opportunity make their asylum case. “We are celebrating her success!!” Rodriguez wrote in a text. Four days later, the pair joined the rare population of asylum-seekers permitted to pass through the port of entry in Nogales. They rested for the night at Casa Alitas before beginning the next leg of their journey.

The post As Biden Continues Trump’s War on Asylum, Danger Mounts in the Deadly Sonoran Desert appeared first on The Intercept.

Local Cops Said Pipeline Company Had Influence Over Government Appointment

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 17/04/2021 - 9:00pm in

As the Canadian oil pipeline company Enbridge awaited its final permits last summer to begin construction on the Line 3 tar sands oil transport project, Minnesota sheriff’s offices along the route fretted. With an Anishinaabe-led movement pledging to carry out nonviolent blockades and demonstrations to prevent the pipeline’s construction, local police worried they’d be stuck with the costs of policing and wanted Enbridge to pay instead.

As part of its permit to build Line 3, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, or PUC, created a special Enbridge-funded account that public safety officials could use to pay for policing Enbridge’s political opponents. The police were concerned about who state officials would hire to decide which invoices to pay or reject.

Last June, Kanabec County Sheriff Brian Smith wrote an email to other sheriffs along the pipeline route. “I think we need to let the PUC know that the person selected needs to be someone that we also agree upon,” Smith wrote. “Not a member of the PUC, not a state, county or federal employee, but someone that has an understanding of rioting and MFF operations” — referring to mobile field force operations, or anti-riot policing.

In response, Enbridge offered reassurances, according to other police on the email chain. “I had a discussion with Troy Kirby (Enbridge Chief of Security) this morning, and expressed concern over that position and the escrow account,” Aitkin County Sheriff Daniel Guida replied. “He indicated they have some influence on the hiring of that positon [sic] and he would be involved to ensure we are taken care of, one way or another.”

“They are being incentivized to carry out the goals of a foreign corporation, and they’re being taken care of for doing it.”

The exchange between the sheriffs is an example of the public-private collaborations between law enforcement and fossil fuel companies that have raised alarms for civil rights advocates and environmental activists across the U.S. Oil, gas, and pipeline corporations have forged a range of creative strategies for funding the police who respond to their political opponents, from paying elected constables for work as private security to creating an entire police unit dedicated to protecting infrastructure. Other industries have found ways to route money to police, but corporate law enforcement funding related to pipeline projects is among the most pervasive. Civil liberties advocates say the corporate cash raises troubling questions about private influence over the public institution of policing, noting that growing anti-pipeline protest movements have been met by heavy-handed police tactics.

With opposition to the Line 3 pipeline mounting, public records obtained by The Intercept shed new light on the depths of the cooperation between Enbridge and public safety officials in Minnesota — especially law enforcement agencies along the route. “They are being incentivized to carry out the goals of a foreign corporation, and they’re being taken care of for doing it,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund’s Center for Protest Law and Litigation, which is representing Line 3 pipeline opponents. She said the dynamic was on view in the sheriff’s description of Enbridge influence over the escrow account hire: “That communication is defining of the relationship between the Enbridge corporation and law enforcement in Northern Minnesota.”

Guida, the Aitkin County sheriff, told The Intercept that, at the time of the email, sheriffs were concerned the account liaison appointment was taking too long and believed Kirby, the Enbridge security head, could speed up the process. Asked for comment, Enbridge directed questions about the account to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. In a statement, PUC spokesperson Will Seuffert said, “Enbridge had no input into the Escrow Account Manager selection.” The panel that made the appointment included two commission staff members and one from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety who worked “without any involvement from Enbridge, or any other parties,” he said.

In February, Richard Hart, a former official at the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office and a former deputy chief of police in Bloomington, Minnesota, was hired for the role. So far, he has approved more than $900,000 in Enbridge funding for law enforcement agencies and other public safety institutions.

For Indigenous water protectors, the cooperation between law enforcement and pipeline companies is part of a long history of public security forces being leveraged against Native tribes for private gain, going back to the violent westward expansion of the United States. Tania Aubid, an anti-Line 3 organizer and a member of the Rice Lake Band, which is part of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, said, “It’s keeping on with the Indian Wars.”

Money for Tear Gas

Chief among the law enforcement officers’ concerns about the escrow account, according to emails obtained through public records requests, was a rule in the Line 3 permit limiting how the funds can be used. Sheriff’s offices can use the account to pay for any public safety services “provided in and about the construction site as a direct result of the construction and removal of the pipeline,” but they cannot use it to pay for equipment, unless it’s personal protective gear.

It was widely understood — and a particular source of frustration — that so-called less-lethal munitions, such as tear gas, would not be reimbursed through the account. “We do know for absolute certain that munitions will NOT be an allowable expense,” noted Carlton County Sheriff Kelly Lake in a November 19 email to fellow members of the Northern Lights Task Force, a coalition of law enforcement and public safety officials set up primarily to respond to anti-pipeline demonstrations.

“So, we can get reimbursed for trafficking but not equipment needed to protect our community’s? [sic]” wrote Cass County Sheriff Tom Burch a few days later, in reply to an email that said Enbridge funds could be used to address an expected increase in human trafficking related to the arrival of hundreds of temporary workers.

A Native American environmental activist stands in front of the construction site for the Line 3 oil pipeline near Palisade, Minnesota on January 9, 2021. - Line 3 is an oil sands pipeline which runs from Hardisty, Alberta, Canada to Superior, Wisconsin in the United States. In 2014, a new route for the Line 3 pipeline was proposed to allow an increased volume of oil to be transported daily. While that project has been approved in Canada, Wisconsin, and North Dakota, it has sparked continued resistance from climate justice groups and Native American communities in Minnesota. While many people are concerned about potential oil spills along Line 3, some Native American communities in Minnesota have opposed the project on the basis of treaty rights. (Photo by Kerem Yucel / AFP) (Photo by KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images)

Water protectors protest at a construction site for Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline near Palisade, Minn., on Jan. 9, 2021.

Photo: Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images

The funding gap for less-lethal munitions was important enough that law enforcement officials raised it with Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz. In early October, Walz set up a phone call with the sheriffs along the Line 3 route. Ahead of the calls, Lake, the Carlton County sheriff, distributed a handful of talking points to the group. Among them was the problem of tear gas funding.

“One identified resource we know that will aid in response should the protests become violent and out of control is the use of less lethal munitions such as gas,” the talking points said. “We have been told by the PUC that this absolutely will not be an allowable expense for reimbursement through the Public Safety Escrow Account. Enbridge has said they would not directly reimburse this expense as they have put funds aside into the Public Safety Escrow Account already to be utilized to reimburse public safety for response.”

It continues, “If counties along the pipeline route face mass crowds of violent protests that are prolonged events, the small resources of munitions that we may have will be very quickly depleted. Without these less lethal options, there is an incredibly increased risk for responders, protestors, and the community as a whole.”

The governor apparently offered words of comfort. “Dave’s assessment is that it went very well and he believes that the Governor will figure out the funding piece and the munitions,” Lake said in an email after the call, referring to Dave Olmstead, a retired Bloomington police commander who serves as Minnesota’s special events preparedness coordinator for Line 3, overseeing the public safety response to the project. “It sounds like his staff was already trying to line up a meeting internally for them to discuss it.”

A spokesperson for the governor’s office did not answer a question about the phone call and directed all queries about state funding to the Department of Public Safety, which did not respond to a request for comment. Guida told The Intercept that his department has received no additional funding from the state to pay for less-lethal weapons.

Enbridge Funding Equipment

Regardless of what funding the governor arranged, less-lethal weapons, including tear gas, are baked into law enforcement’s plans for Line 3.

A Northern Lights Task Force document laying out the overarching police strategy for Line 3 protests, also obtained through a public information request, repeatedly notes the importance of protecting free speech rights, urging officers to “make reasonable efforts to employ ‘non-arrest’ methods of crowd management” and to target leaders and agitators, rather than detaining people en masse.

If targeted arrests fail to disperse a group, according to the document, then chemical weapons are allowed, including smoke, pepper spray, or a combination of the two, followed by longer-range pepper spray, pepper blast balls, and tear gas. Impact munitions, firearms-fired projectiles in the less-lethal category like sponge rounds, marking rounds, and pepper spray-tipped rounds can only be targeted at individuals whose actions put others in danger of injury. The use of dogs requires permission from local law enforcement commanders.

Guida justified planning for the use of less-lethal munitions by comparing the Line 3 opposition to the movement against the Dakota Access pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. “It seemed that without less than lethal munitions, when they lost control, that things would have continued to spiral out of control,” Guida said.

Verheyden-Hilliard is part of the legal team representing Dakota Access pipeline opponents in a class-action civil rights lawsuit against law enforcement officials in North Dakota, including a woman who lost vision in one eye after police shot her in the face with a tear gas canister. “If we want to look at what happened with DAPL, I think that’s a good idea,” she said. “The lesson we can learn from there is in fact that equipping all these local sheriffs with these very powerful and very indiscriminate and very dangerous weapons causes substantial injury and harm to people.”

None of the weapons have yet been deployed, but counties have stocked up. Beltrami County, which is located near but not on the pipeline route, even submitted an invoice requesting reimbursement from the Enbridge-funded escrow account for more than $10,000 in less-lethal weapons, including batons, pepper spray, impact munitions, and tear gas grenades, despite the restriction.

Hart rejected those requests but approved $911,060 in other reimbursements, including approximately $170,00 worth of equipment: mostly tactical and crowd control gear, as well as miscellaneous items. Reimbursements, for example, were made for port-a-potty rentals, which are considered personal protective equipment because, according to Hart, “the toilets protect jail employees from biological exposure during jail overcrowding.” Among other approvedpersonal protective equipment” are baton stops, which attach a baton to officers’ duty belts, and gas masks, which protect officers from the tear gas they deploy.

Shanai Matteson, an opponent of the Line 3 who is from Guida’s county, said it feels inevitable that tear gas and other munitions will be used. “What you practice for, and the mindset you have, is what you bring. They’re soldiering up to protect a private company’s assets, so what do we think is going to happen?” Matteson said. “Stopping work on a project that’s destroying the place that we live is not the same as violence that would warrant this kind of a response.”

The post Local Cops Said Pipeline Company Had Influence Over Government Appointment appeared first on The Intercept.

History Debunked Refutes Critical Race Theory’s Rejection of Objective Fact

In this video from History Debunked, YouTuber and author Simon Webb attacks Critical Race Theory’s epistemology. Critical Race Theory is the theory of racial politics, devised by American Marxists, that Blacks are the victims of institutional racism. As the video states, Critical Race Theory has largely been confined to the US for the past 40 years, but is now being adopted in Britain. It was the McPherson report following the murder of Stephen Lawrence, which introduced the idea of institutional racism in Britain with its conclusion that the Met was institutional racist. Since then a number of other organisations have also been accused of institutional racism, including the NHS.

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy dealing with knowledge. There is a difference between subjective and objective knowledge. The statement that light moves at 186,000 miles per second is objectively true. It can be tested. But the statement that X hates someone is subjective, as it is difficult to prove objectively. In the West, knowledge is generally regarded as objective fact. But Critical Race Theory rejects objective fact in favour of ‘Standpoint Epistemology’. This is the view that the opinions and perceptions of minorities are what matter, and these should be accepted uncritically, as demanding objective proof or questioning them is a form of oppression. The video also states that the theory also promotes instead of facts the stories Black people tell amongst themselves. These stories, which may include myths, are to be regarded as incontrovertible truth, and should similarly not be subjected to criticism or testing.

The video illustrates this by citing the views of a young Black woman, Yomimi, in an article published by the Beeb, and the Oprah Winfrey interview with Meghan Markle. The Beeb article is about the higher percentage of graduate unemployment among Blacks. Yomimi is quoted as saying that she feels it is due to institutional racism, and that employers automatically reject applicants from Black and Asian candidates, whose names are difficult to pronounce. This was the subject of a previous video by History Debunked yesterday, in which he argued against this assertion. Official statistics show that Chinese and Indians are slightly better at obtaining jobs than Whites, but Chinese names are notoriously difficult for westerners to pronounce. However, the Chinese generally do better in education than Whites, while fewer Blacks than Whites obtain two or more ‘A’ levels. Black unemployment may therefore have more to do with poor Black academic performance than institutional racism amongst employers. But what is important about the article is that Yomimi is not asked to provide supporting facts for her arguments. It is just how she feels or sees the situation.

Similarly, Markle said little in her interview with Winfrey that could be objectively verified. Significantly, Winfrey thanked Markle for speaking her ‘truth’. This sounds strange to British ears, but it’s part of the same viewpoint that rejects objective truth in favour of feelings and perceptions.

I’ve no doubt that racism exists in this country, and the police force, especially the Met, has been notorious for the racism of some of its officers. Racism appears to be one explanation for the Met’s failure to prosecute Lawrence’s murderers, but they were also the sons of notorious London gangsters. An alternative explanation was that the cops were afraid of prosecuting them because of their fathers, or else were corrupt and on their payroll. Private Eye also stated a few years ago that an Asian and White lad were also separately the victims of racist murders, and the Met was similarly negligent about finding and prosecuting their killers but that there was no mention of this.

The rejection of objective fact, however, is a fundamental element of Postmodernism and its moral and cultural relativism. Instead, it sees every culture and viewpoint as equal. Way back in the 1990s I tried to do an MA on British Islam at my old College. As part of it, my supervisor sent me to several Cultural Studies seminars, which were thoroughly postmodern. These were on colonial or western views of extra-European cultures. The attitude really did seem to be that westerners really couldn’t understand or appreciate other cultures, who should thus be exempt from western criticism. Any attempt to do so was dangerously prejudiced and ‘othering’.

Unfortunately, parts of the women’s movement have also been contaminated by this irratrionalism. In their book Intellectual Impostures, Sokal and Bricmont, one an American left-wing mathematician and physicist, the other a Belgian philosopher, attack postmodern philosophy and particularly its appropriation of scientific concepts. These are used nonsensically to give an appearance of depth and profundity to arguments that are actually absurd and incoherent nonsense. In one chapter they attack a number of postmodern feminist writers, who refuse to use conventional logical argument because logic and objective are patriarchal concepts that mentally imprison women. I am not joking, and this is most definitely not a wind-up.

A friend of mine came across this attitude, also back in the 1990s, in the women’s committee of the local branch of the National Union of Students. He was told by someone who worked with it, that it was one of three autonomous committees, whose conclusions were automatically passed as NUS policy. The other committees were for Black and LGBTQ students. The women’s committee similarly rejected logic and objective fact. Instead their debates supposedly consisted of them largely talking about their experiences of sexual abuse before concluding with their recommendation on a particularly issue. Which was passed with no debate. This situation should have been unacceptable. I have every sympathy for anyone who has been sexually abused, but official decisions need to be based on logical argument and proper debate, not entirely subjective feelings and personal history unless these are directly relevant to the matter.

Sokal and Bricmont were highly critical of this feminist rejection of logic, not least because it was based on a very traditional view, that has been used to exclude women from authority. For centuries women were largely excluded from a number of professions and political power on the basis that they, unlike men, were emotional rather than reasonable and logical. The Nazis used the same argument to justify their removal of women from the workplace and politics. They also believed in Cultural Relativism, and what was appropriate for one race was unsuitable for others. This is shown in their denunciation of democracy as ‘Jewish’. Now cultural relativism and the rejection of objective fact in favour of feelings and perceptions is being promoted as empowering for Blacks and women.

Proper discussion of racism is entirely appropriate, especially given the continuing poverty and marginalisation of the Black community. But this has to be done through rational discussion and argument, backed up with facts and statistics. And this means a rejection of Postmodernism and Critical Race Theory’s theory of knowledge.

The Quilliam Foundation, Set Up By the Spooks

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 16/04/2021 - 11:05pm in

Hat tip to Zelo Street for posting about this story. And it’s the type of stuff the conspiracy/ parapolitical magazine Lobster was set up to investigate and publicize: the covert shenanigans and dodgy activities of the British, American and western security services. Earlier this week the Quilliam Foundation, an organisation set up to counter Islamist religious extremism, went under. Its demise, as Zelo Street noted, raised the questions of why it had been wound up, considering all the millions had that been spent on it all these years, why its founder Maajid Nawaz had started deleting all his tweets about it, and what was the role of the security services in all of this. Ian Cobain, a former hack with the Groan knew, and told all.

Quilliam had been set up by the Home Office’s Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism. He knew this, as the OSCT had told him. The government initially planned to fund it covertly. It would ostensibly be funded by benefactors from the Middle East, but this would be a cover for its real source of income, MI6. However, the government then decided that it should be openly funded by the government, but that this would not publicised. This is now seen as a mistake. It should have been funded by the security agencies, who do it all the time apparently without anyone finding out.

Solomon Hughes also noted that its links to the security services seemed pretty open when it was founded, as early staff included Special Forces Captain Ed Jagger, and a ‘journalist’, who goes by the pseudonym ‘James Brandon’. Both of these men now work private security/ intelligence companies. This was all exposed six years ago by Nafeez Ahmed in an article in the Middle East Eye, ‘The Circus: How British Intelligence Primed Both Sides of the Terror War”. Ahmed revealed that the Quilliam Foundation was set up by Ed Husain and Nawaz with funding from the British government. And this, according to Ahmed, was why it failed, as neither of its founders were actually jihadis.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Husain’s and Nawaz’s claim to expertise on terrorism was that they were never jihadists. Hizb ut-Tahrir is a non-violent movement for the establishment of a global ‘caliphate’ through social struggle, focusing on the need for political activism in the Muslim world. Whatever the demerits of this rigid political ideology, it had no relationship to the phenomenon of al-Qaeda terrorism”.

Hizb-ut-Tahrir spawned a terrorist-supporting offshoot, al-Muhajiroun, which has also, like HuT, been banned in Britain as terrorist organisation. I think it was al-Muhajiroun, which was openly campaigning for donations to go to al-Qaeda from British Muslims at the time of the 9/11 terror attack. If I recall correctly, a couple of these jokers made the mistake of doing so in the street, and some other, ordinary stout Muslims lads showed them how strongly they disapproved of terrorism and mass murder. I think it was because of his role as a leading supporter and campaigner for al-Muhajiroun that Anjem Chowdhry, who never met an Islamist terrorist he didn’t like, apparently, ended up in the slammer. I thought Chowdry was behind the outfit, but it seems he wasn’t. It was founded instead by Omar Bakri. According to the US army intelligence officer and prosecutor for the US Justice Department, John Loftus, after Bakr left Hizb-ut-Tahrir he was recruited by MI6 facilitate Islamist activities in the Balkans. Ahmed concluded his piece by wishing that they could round up all the activists in the Quilliam Foundation and HuT and their handlers, and then put them in a boat on a journey to nowhere, so that everyone else could get some peace.

Zelo Street: Quilliam And The Spooks (zelo-street.blogspot.com)

It’s been Lobster’s contention since its foundation in the 1980s that the British security services are incompetent, out of control and very frequently working against the well-being of this country’s ordinary people. MI6’s recruitment of Bakri to assist in Islamist radicalisation and activities in the Balkans adds further evidence to this view. Years ago I found a book in the Central Library here in Bristol by a Muslim, which suggested that the 7/7 bombings had also been the result of a plot by the British security services. This was part of a wider scheme to keep western troops in the former Yugoslavia, ostensibly to keep the peace, but in reality to maintain control of yet another oil pipeline. I don’t know whether MI6 is so lawless that it was behind the 7/7 bombings – I sincerely hope not – but the revelation that it recruited Bakri to promote Islamism in that part of Europe suggests that there’s something to the idea that it’s all about oil politics. It was to get control of an oil pipeline that we invaded Afghanistan, not to overthrow al-Qaeda or the Taliban. And the Iraq invasion was to grab their oil industry as well as loot the country of its other, valuable state enterprises for the benefit of western multinationals.

And somehow the Quilliam Foundation fits in with this mess of Islamist surveillance and manipulation.

Oklahoma Lawmaker Calls Abortion Worse Than Slavery

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 16/04/2021 - 9:00pm in



Sitting at a conference table with a contingent of colleagues, almost all of them unmasked, state Rep. Jim Olsen laid out a bill that would end abortion in Oklahoma.

Under Senate Bill 612, anyone who provided or “attempted” to provide an abortion could be charged with a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.

But, state Rep. Denise Brewer asked, wasn’t the legislation unconstitutional? Wouldn’t it be a “waste of time and money” to pass the bill and then try to defend it in court?

Olsen falsely claimed that the bill would be constitutional. And regardless, he added, it was the moral thing to do. He offered a factually inaccurate and troubling analogy: The British lawmaker William Wilberforce dedicated his life to abolishing slavery but died before he could see it happen. (Wilberforce actually died after passage of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.) After 35 years of trying to abolish slavery, Olsen said, Wilberforce “died an apparent failure,” but that didn’t mean he shouldn’t have dedicated his life to the cause. “And this is a cause of even greater import,” Olsen said of banning abortion, “because it deals with innocent unborn life.”

Rep. Ajay Pittman, one of just eight members of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus, followed up: “You’re saying that saving the … life of an unborn child is more important than saving the lives of slaves?”

“None of us would like to be killed,” Olsen replied. “If I had my choice, I guess I’d be a slave; at least a slave has his life.”

Pittman subsequently left the room. The bill sailed out of committee on an 8-1 vote.

In a statement posted to her website, Pittman blasted Olsen for his remarks. “In times like these where we see our nation on the cusp of reckoning social and racial injustices, we still endure implicit bias from our colleagues who are insensitive to what is said about the hurtful and ugly past of this country’s treatment of African Americans,” she said. “We continue as policy makers to chip away at the rights of women to choose proper healthcare for themselves … and now we are hearing our colleagues compare these healthcare issues to slavery, which also limited the rights of Black women by not allowing them to have a choice not to have children by their slave masters.”

Olsen’s bill is just one among hundreds filed in legislatures across the country that seek to severely curtail, if not simply ban, abortion. 2021 has already seen 532 bills restricting abortion filed in 44 states, according to Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute. Of those measures, 22 have been enacted in six states.

Emboldened by a newly conservative U.S. Supreme Court, many states have dropped all pretense that abortion restrictions are needed to ensure the health and safety of patients, said Jessica Arons, senior advocacy and policy counsel for reproductive freedom at the American Civil Liberties Union. “They’re just throwing everything at the wall to see what will stick,” she said, crafting extreme measures designed to wind up in court and potentially before SCOTUS. In March, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said as much after signing into law a near total ban on abortion. “I signed it because it is a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade,” Hutchinson told CNN. “That is the intent of it.” To date, each of these extreme laws has been blocked by the courts.

But while there are plenty of straightforward bans, like the one in Arkansas and Olsen’s SB 612, there is also a crop of more “sinister” approaches, as Arons put it. Elisabeth Smith, chief counsel for state policy and advocacy with the Center for Reproductive Rights, described these approaches as employing procedural “smoke and mirrors” to try to ban abortion without explicitly taking aim at Roe. “What we see are opponents of abortion rights … trying to sneak around the Constitution to pass their rules.”

Procedural Tricks

Among those employing the burgeoning smoke-and-mirrors approach are lawmakers in Texas. On its face, state Sen. Bryan Hughes’s Senate Bill 8 looks a lot like bills passed in 11 states that ban abortion altogether or after about six weeks’ gestation, which is long before most people know they’re pregnant. Notably, each of those measures has been blocked by the courts. With that in mind, Hughes has taken a different tack: Instead of making the ban enforceable by a government actor — say, the state health department or the attorney general — SB 8 allows literally anyone to take matters into their own hands by filing a civil suit in state court against any doctor they believe may have violated the law. It also allows individuals to file suit against anyone who “aids or abets the performance or inducement of an abortion,” which could make any number of people vulnerable, including friends or relatives who lend someone money to pay for an abortion or drive a patient to a clinic.

“Senate Bill 8 is crafted to lead to judicial victories,” John Seago, legislative director for Texas Right to Life, said during a committee hearing on the bill. “This bill is written to succeed where 11 other states have failed.”

The goal is to make it impossible for abortion providers to sue the state to block the law from taking effect, what’s known as a pre-enforcement challenge. If the state isn’t responsible for enforcement, the thinking goes, then providers have no way to mount that kind of challenge to an otherwise unconstitutional ban on pre-viability abortion.

The bill would also bar providers from collecting attorneys’ fees when they win in court — a move that imposes an extra burden on doctors, while further incentivizing individuals to sue them. Indeed, Texas and a number of other states have had to pay out millions in attorneys’ fees when their abortion restrictions are blocked in court.

“This bill tries to use tricky procedural moves to undermine years of Supreme Court precedent in an attempt to deny abortion to Texans,” said Julie McClain Downey, senior director of advocacy communications for the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

The idea for this strategy has its roots in a Louisiana case from the 1990s known as Okpalobi v. Foster, said Smith. There, lawmakers passed a bill that said patients could sue abortion providers for “any damage” caused by an abortion. Represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights, the providers sued the governor and attorney general, arguing that the law would have a chilling effect that would amount to an undue burden on people seeking access to abortion. The district court agreed, blocking the law, and a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision. But after revisiting the case, the full bench of the 5th Circuit concluded that while the law might be unconstitutional, because it had codified a means for private legal action, the providers couldn’t sue the state to block it from taking effect. (The law is still on the books in Louisiana.)

“It’s deputizing anyone to harass a provider with no basis.”

“Texas has hanged its hat on that precedent,” Smith said. But it’s not clear it will actually work. For one thing, because of the way the civil legal system is structured, the person filing suit has to have suffered actual harm. SB 8, meanwhile, would allow anyone to sue based on mere speculation that a doctor had violated the ban. “It’s deputizing anyone to harass a provider with no basis,” she said. “They’re trying to dress up this unconstitutional bill as something that’s unassailable, but we know that’s not the case. If this becomes enacted, abortion providers in Texas are not going to allow that to go unchallenged.”

In Tennessee, where a number of abortion restrictions have been blocked by the courts, including a six-week ban, lawmakers are now considering a measure that would allow a person to prevent another’s access to abortion by claiming paternity. Notably, the law would not require the person bringing suit to provide any DNA evidence to back up their claim. “The bill would allow someone to petition for an injunction to stop a woman from seeking medical care without providing scientific testing results proving that they are the biological father of the embryo or fetus,” ACLU of Tennessee Legal Director Thomas H. Castelli wrote in a statement to The Intercept. “This is one of its many, many problems.”

Oklahoma tried, and failed, to pass a similar measure in 2017, which would have required a pregnant person to get the approval of their partner before being able to access abortion. Such notification measures have long been deemed unconstitutional.

Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, talks with people attending a Senate hearing to discuss a fetal heartbeat abortion ban, or possibly something more restrictive, Monday, Aug. 12, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Tennessee Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, talks with people attending a state Senate hearing to discuss a fetal heartbeat abortion ban on Aug. 12, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn.

Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP

Nonetheless, Republican state Sen. Mark Pody told The Tennessean that he believes “a father should have a right to say what’s gonna be happening to that child.” And if “somebody is going to kill that child, he should be able to say, ‘No, I don’t want that child to be killed.’”

Reproductive rights advocates in Tennessee have decried the measure. “This unconstitutional legislation demonstrates the condescending mindset underlying this bill: that men should control women’s bodies,” Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, told the newspaper. “Women are not chattel and this bill needs to be stopped in its tracks.”

Back in Oklahoma, Olsen is carrying another anti-abortion bill that also tries to sneak around its obvious constitutional defects. House Bill 1102 would amend state statute governing medical practice to define providing abortion as “unprofessional conduct,” punishable by license revocation.

During a recent discussion of the bill on the House floor, Olsen variously defended the measure as perfectly legal (states have long had the freedom to control medical licensure, he said); as a vehicle to challenge Roe v. Wade (“It may end up going all the way there”); and as a moral duty. He stated repeatedly that banning abortion was necessary to ensure equal rights. “That mother has a right to life and so also that baby has a right to life. So in the whole question, we have to factor in the mother and also we have to, on an equal basis, factor in the life of the baby as equally valuable,” he said.

State Rep. Meloyde Blancett later followed up: Did Olsen think that women who chose abortion were criminals?

“Those that do wrong, men or women who break the law of God, will be accountable to God. Hopefully we would have those major items in statute,” he said. “A woman who consents to the killing of her unborn child without a significant threat to her life, she is doing wrong, and she’ll one day answer to God for it.”

“Do you believe that you’re representing the word of God on the floor today with your bill and your pronouncements?” Blancett asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Olsen replied.

The bill passed 81-18 and is now pending in the Oklahoma Senate.

 Pro-choice advocates, right, face off against anti-abortion supporters during a rally at the Supreme Court Wednesday March 2, 2016, as Justices hear a case concerning a Texas law regulating abortion clinics and providers. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Anti-abortion activists, left, face abortion rights advocates, right, during a rally at the Supreme Court on March 2, 2016.

Photo: Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Pulling Back the Curtain

Despite the different approaches taken by lawmakers across the country, these bills have one thing in common, advocates for reproductive rights say: They’re unconstitutional. Take Olsen’s bill to deem abortion unprofessional conduct. “By restricting doctors from providing abortion under the threat of license revocation … this bill is banning the provision of abortion altogether,” said Nimra Chowdhry, state legislative counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights. “This bill is a ban just like any other abortion ban.”

And there are a lot of them this year, in part because legislative operations mostly ground to a halt in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic accelerated (though that didn’t stop a number of states from trying to exploit the public health crisis to bar access to abortion care). Even as the pandemic and its fallout continue, lawmakers have filed roughly 100 more bills this year than they did in 2019. In fact, the number of bills filed in 2021 is the highest since 2011, which saw 610 abortion restrictions filed.

The Guttmacher Institute’s Nash says there are a lot of similarities between then and now: In 2010, a number of state legislatures lurched to the right, anti-abortion activists increased their on-the-ground organizing, and lawmakers who faced myriad problems related to the Great Recession turned to abortion to energize their base. In 2020, state legislatures did a rightward creep, and anti-abortion activists and lawmakers are jazzed by the prospect of sending an abortion law to the Supreme Court that the newly minted 6-3 conservative majority might seize on to revisit abortion rights.

“They’re clearly confident that they have a court system that is staffed to interpret the laws in the way they want.”

The energy animating this ambition has pulled back the curtain on the real intention behind these measures. For years, anti-abortion lawmakers pushed abortion restrictions under the guise of protecting the health and safety of patients. “We saw abortion opponents try to chip away access to abortion care by passing restrictions that weren’t going to catch the attention of most people,” said the ACLU’s Arons. Things like mandating hospital admitting privileges, which may seem reasonable on its face until you realize that many abortion doctors can’t get hospital privileges for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the safety of abortion. Moreover, in a medical emergency, a patient would go to a local emergency room, not to a hospital that could be hundreds of miles away in order to be admitted by their abortion provider.

Now, however, “all of these states that are so hostile to abortion rights decided to go for broke and have become very blatant in their attempts to outlaw abortion,” Arons said. “Whether it’s a full-frontal ban on abortion or one of these more nefarious and surreptitious regulations, they’re trying to push care out of reach. And they’re clearly confident that they have a court system that is staffed to interpret the laws in the way they want.”

Smith, of the Center for Reproductive Rights, agrees. “We are really seeing people be much more explicit about what has always been their goal: prohibiting abortion entirely,” she said. “And I think that’s the piece that’s important for everyone to know, that the bills may be more extreme now, but this was always their goal.”

The post Oklahoma Lawmaker Calls Abortion Worse Than Slavery appeared first on The Intercept.

There Shouldn’t Be Vaccine Patents in a Health Crisis. Most Americans Agree: Waive Them.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 15/04/2021 - 7:00pm in



 Chris Noble, with People Before Profit calls for the suspension of all Intellectual Property restrictions so that the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine can be made accessible to all as scientists, community members, and activists rally outside of Moderna's Cambridge headquarters as part of a global action day for fair access to vaccines in Cambridge, MA on March 11, 2021. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Scientists, community members, and activists rally outside of Moderna’s headquarters as part of a global action day for fair access to vaccines in Cambridge, Mass., on March 11, 2021.

Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The extremity of Covid-19 vaccine apartheid cannot be overstated. As of mid-February, the United States had acquired enough vaccines for three times its total population, while in 130 countries, not a single vaccine shot had been administered. This is no accident, but the direct and long-predicted result of a vaccine production and access model tied to privatized intellectual property and entrenched medicine monopolies.

The majority of Americans want President Joe Biden to act to end this intolerable vaccine inequality. Sixty percent of U.S. voters said they wanted Biden to endorse a motion at the World Trade Organization that would waive patent barriers and other crucial intellectual property protections on Covid-19 vaccines, according to a new poll from Data for Progress and the Progressive International. This would enable a significant expansion of global production and rollout, while disrupting the extraordinary profiteering of pharmaceutical leviathans in a death-dealing pandemic.

The refusal on the part of major pharmaceutical companies and Western powers to ensure the sharing of vaccine patent and production information has been an immeasurable moral failure, not to mention a most foolish approach to a pandemic in need of a global response. The new poll also makes clear that, for Biden, blocking vaccine sharing is not even a popular position. Seventy-two percent of registered Democrats want the president to remove patent barriers to speed vaccine rollout and reduce costs for less affluent nations.

At present, WTO rules over intellectual property mean that most countries are barred from producing the leading vaccines that have been approved, including those by Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson, which are U.S.-produced. Last October, South Africa and India brought a proposal to the WTO for a temporary waiver that would apply to certain intellectual property on Covid-19 medical tools and technologies until global herd immunity is reached.

It garnered majority support from member states: A hundred countries support the proposal overall, and 58 governments now co-sponsor it; 375 civil society organizations, including Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, and Amnesty International have signed a letter in support.

The waiver was blocked, however, by a small number of wealthy nations and blocs, including the U.S., the U.K., and the EU, that chose instead to leave vaccine production in the hands of only a few pharmaceutical companies, which, through public-private partnerships, have ensured priority access to the rich countries in turn.

There are no legitimate grounds for maintaining patent barriers in this health crisis unless you’re a pharmaceutical giant making billions or, of course, a Western power invested in maintaining global power through neoliberalization, market monopolies, and racialized capitalism. The strongest advocates of intellectual property protections in medicine, Bill Gates chief among them, have offered no ethical basis for the current status quo beyond vague gestures to protecting “innovation.”

Even a self-interested approach, that sees the devastating economic possibilities of a mutating virus turning the pandemic into something endemic, should make the necessity of a patent waiver clear. The commitment to monopoly medicine is, in this sense, ideological.

The WTO waiver proposal needs backing by a consensus of the the organization’s 164 members to pass. It was under President Donald Trump that the U.S. blocked the patent waiver: a move that came as no surprise for an administration of white nationalists, which proudly left the World Health Organization. A change of tack by the Biden administration, which rejoined the WHO on Day One, could go a long way in pushing other wealthy countries to follow suit.

The Data for Progress and the Progressive International poll makes clear that Biden has a popular mandate in acting against vaccine apartheid. Burcu Kilic, research director of the access to medicines program at Public Citizen and member of Progressive International’s Council, called on Biden to “listen to Americans who put him in power” and “do the right thing.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chair of the Senate Budget Committee, responded to the poll saying the U.S. should be “leading the global effort to end the coronavirus pandemic.” According to Sanders, “a temporary WTO waiver, which would enable the transfer of vaccine technologies to poorer countries, is a good way to do that.” More than 60 lawmakers have added their signature to a letter pushing Biden to save lives through a global vaccination drive.

For an entire year, public health organizations and civil society groups have en masse urged an internationalized pandemic response of open-sourced research and medical tools. Such calls for cooperation and equity were swiftly quashed, in no small part thanks to the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As Alexander Zaitchik noted in a crucial piece for The New Republic, Gates’s long history of intellectual property crusading enacted a Covid-19 vaccine response in line with a status quo “defined by a zero-sum vaccination battle that has left much of the world on the losing side.”

I’m not the first to highlight the colonialist regime that has shaped this unequal vaccine scenario. Sharon Lerner reported for The Intercept that countries including Argentina, South Africa, Brazil, and Turkey, which hosted Pfizer vaccine trials, have been shut out of sufficient vaccine access. The same extractive practices that have historically enriched Western powers through the direct expense and suffering of colonized peoples continue to this day with most deadly consequences — vaccine apartheid among them.

Whether Biden, no enemy to neoliberalism, will take a stand against the approach of canonized philanthropist Gates is not yet clear. It’s now undeniable that U.S. voters, alongside the broad public health community, want him to.

The post There Shouldn’t Be Vaccine Patents in a Health Crisis. Most Americans Agree: Waive Them. appeared first on The Intercept.

“It’s Consumed Our Lives”: Volunteers Step In as Border Patrol Drops Migrants Off in Tiny Arizona Towns

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 14/04/2021 - 8:00pm in



The families sat in folding chairs under a white canopy in a tiny park north of the central plaza. A small group of volunteers dressed head to toe in medical scrubs stood at a table nearby, gray hair protruding from behind their plastic face shields. Many of the children wore winter coats and knit caps. Their parents looked tired but present, their overstuffed backpacks resting in the grass beside them.

Guadalupe Alvarez, a fluent Spanish speaker, provided the orientation. The first order of business was letting the families know where they were: Ajo, Arizona, a tiny unincorporated community in the heart of the Sonoran Desert.

“I tell them that it’s two hours from here to their next destination, but that they’ll be here for about an hour, in which time they’ll do the Covid testing, and we’ll bring them some snacks, and we can go to the restroom if they’d like,” Alvarez told me. From there, Ajo’s ad-hoc processing system began.

The drop-offs of asylum-seekers in Southern Arizona began roughly a month after President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Justified by U.S. Customs and Border Protection as a response to capacity and resource issues, the off-loading in rural communities is one example of the Biden administration doubling down and in some ways intensifying a controversial Trump-era practice on the border. Under President Donald Trump, large groups of asylum-seekers were for a time released in the western city of Yuma, creating major strains on the community. Under Biden, similar releases are now happening in communities a fraction of the size of Yuma and with far fewer resources, creating a fraught and untenable situation for humanitarian aid providers in some of the border’s deadliest areas.

The Intercept observed two rounds of drop-offs in Ajo recently and spoke to community members involved in the response effort. The process works like this: Prior to the drop-offs, CBP, the agency that oversees the Border Patrol, provides Casa Alitas and the International Rescue Committee, the organizations that oversee the primary migrant shelters in Tucson and Phoenix, respectively, and volunteers on the ground with a rough count of how many asylum-seekers to expect. There are typically two drops in Ajo, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon.

Residents have banded together to help an influx of migrants abandoned by CBP in small and undeveloped rural town of Ajo, Ariz. on Thursday, April 1, 2021.

A volunteer conducts a rapid Covid-19 test on a migrant in Ajo, Ariz., on April 1, 2021.

Photo: Ash Ponders for The Intercept

Volunteers, some of them elderly retirees, assemble to conduct rapid Covid-19 tests on the spot. Testing is followed by food and an opportunity to sit in an air-conditioned auditorium, eat volunteer-prepared food, and connect to Wi-Fi. From Ajo, the families and individuals are loaded onto rented vans and driven hours away to Tucson or Phoenix, families generally going to the former and single adults going to the latter. If someone tests positive for Covid-19 during the process, which as of April 1 had happened three times, they are separated from the larger group, and a volunteer drives them to the shelter on their own.

Surrounded by a vast expanse of desert, Ajo is the lone population center in one of the deadliest corridors for migrants in all of Southern Arizona. With record-setting heat last year, the state saw more migrant remains recovered in the desert than any year in the past decade. Many of those remains were found in the desert outside Ajo.

John Orlowski, a longtime volunteer with the Ajo Samaritans, the town’s most active humanitarian organization, said the size of the groups has been steadily increasing, with the largest group to arrive so far numbering 40 people. Initially, volunteers themselves were footing the bill to charter transportation to Tucson. Recently, Pima County’s Board of Supervisors secured a contract to cover those costs, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency is expected to reimburse.

As we watched a drop-off unfolding one morning, Orlowski noted that volunteers have encountered multiple cases of families who were separated during processing at the border, with some members turned away.

Residents have banded together to help an influx of migrants abandoned by CBP in small and undeveloped rural town of Ajo, Ariz. on Thursday, April 1, 2021.

A migrant child peers from the window of a shuttle in Ajo, Ariz., on April 1, 2021.

Photo: Ash Ponders for The Intercept

The rural drop-offs in Southern Arizona are one facet of the complicated and often confusing enforcement dynamics playing out across the border right now. The Biden administration is currently continuing Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule pushed through by Trump immigration adviser Stephen Miller that has allowed Border Patrol agents to carry out more than half a million “expulsions” across the Southwest in the past year. The expulsions do not involve a hearing, and they are often completed in a just a couple hours.

As Biden made clear in his first press conference as president, his administration would prefer to use the rule to expel all families who cross the border, but the Mexican government’s refusal to accept certain populations has presented challenges to that effort.

Asylum-seekers are not exempt under Title 42, and up until November, neither were unaccompanied children: The Trump administration expelled at least 13,000 unaccompanied kids using the rule. There’s currently little observable consistency in who, beyond unaccompanied children, is currently being exempted from expulsions. The demographics of rural drop-offs in Arizona’s section of the border, however, indicate that individuals from South America and the Caribbean — particularly Venezuelans, Cubans, and Brazilians — are faring better in being permitted entry than Central Americans and Mexicans.

“It’s always excused with paperwork,” Orlowski said of the family separations created by Title 42. “Today, none of these people had paperwork. They forgot.”

The Border Patrol had failed to provide the families before us with paperwork that would establish that they were authorized to be in the country. If volunteers had not caught the oversight, Orlowski said, “the likelihood of us sending them to Tucson and then figuring out how to get the paperwork to them and not making a mistake would have been pretty low.”

Residents have banded together to help an influx of migrants abandoned by CBP in small and undeveloped rural town of Ajo, Ariz. on Thursday, April 1, 2021.

A U.S. immigration official delivers missing paperwork for migrants left by CBP in Ajo, Ariz., on April 1, 2021.

Photo: Ash Ponders for The Intercept

The official who was dispatched to deliver the missing documents to the waiting asylum-seekers arrived wearing plainclothes, including a pendant version of “Thor’s Hammer,” a symbol of Norse mythology sometimes appropriated by white supremacists and other extremists, as well as a Grunt Style T-shirt that read “For the Great Taste of Freedom: 100% Bacon.” The man, who wore no mask, proceeded to mix up which children belonged to which parents, and when one of the women pointed this out to him, in Spanish, he told her he did not understand what she was saying, in English.

While volunteers administered rapid Covid-19 tests, I spoke to a Venezuelan father who had come to the border with his 8-year-old son. He said he was feeling “better” and “safer” now that they were in the U.S. The aim was to reunite with the boy’s mother, he explained, who was already living in the U.S. There was nothing left for them in Venezuela. “There’s no future,” the man said. Venezuelans currently constitute one of the largest populations of displaced people on the planet.

With their Covid-19 tests coming back negative, the man and his child were led into the auditorium. A volunteer lent him her phone so he could deliver the news.

Residents have banded together to help an influx of migrants abandoned by CBP in small and undeveloped rural town of Ajo, Ariz. on Thursday, April 1, 2021.

A migrant woman and her son are helped by residents of Ajo, Ariz., on April 1, 2021.

Photo: Ash Ponders for The Intercept

The first murmurings that CBP was considering the change in policy started at the beginning of the year. Agency officials told Southern Arizona stakeholders that under the 1982 Antideficiency Act, which bars federal agencies from using resources for activities outside the scope of their congressional mandate, the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector would no longer drive people apprehended in the desert beyond the nearest inhabited place; historically, the agency has maintained custody through transportation to cities such as Tucson or Phoenix.

A CBP official speaking to The Intercept on background in March said a lack of legally available resources was indeed part of the shift in policy, as was a federal court injunction ordering the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector to provide individuals in custody for more than 48 hours with items such as clean blankets, soap, and access to medical care.

Southern Arizona, and Ajo in particular, has a long history of humanitarian aid, reaching back to the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s. As it has for decades, that community has stepped up in response to the ever shifting, always punishing realities of U.S. border enforcement, but efforts to respond to the daily drop-offs are clearly taking a toll.

For those on the ground, CBP’s justifications for the shift in practice are difficult to square. The Border Patrol station outside Ajo is a state-of-the-art facility utilized by hundreds of personnel. CBP has an air fleet roughly as large as the Brazilian air force. Ajo, by comparison, is a community of about 3,700 people with no local government and no hospital. Nestled in one of the most unforgiving ecosystems in the American Southwest, it is officially considered a “federally designated colonia” due to the absence of resources, money, and infrastructure.

Residents have banded together to help an influx of migrants abandoned by CBP in small and undeveloped rural town of Ajo, Ariz. on Thursday, April 1, 2021.

Ajo, seen on  April 1, 2021, is officially considered a “federally designated colonia” due to the absence of resources, money, and infrastructure.

Photo: Ash Ponders for The Intercept

“The frustrating thing is this was never an issue back in 2019 — DHS was able to fund and get people to the larger cities of Tucson and Phoenix,” Diego Piña Lopez, the program manager of Casa Alitas, told me after his first visit to observe the operations in Ajo. The Casa Alitas shelter provided services to some 18,000 people that year. In recent weeks, CBP has told local officials to expect an even bigger influx this year, though so far in Arizona that has yet to happen. Prior to the shift in policy, the pandemic had already put an enormous strain on aid providers, Piña said: “If DHS does testing and transportation, that would take a load off of the shelters.”

The city of Yuma, population 100,000, has experienced large-scale CBP drop-offs before. In 2019, Republican Mayor Douglas Nicholls declared a state of emergency in response to the practice. At the time, Nicholls relied heavily on local nonprofits to provide the humanitarian response on the ground. Two years later, those same organizations are struggling to keep the lights on.

“Our nonprofits have been decimated, in a lot of ways, by Covid,” Nicholls told me. “They don’t have the resources they used to have.”

Yuma has received “well over 2,000” asylum-seekers since February, Nicholls said, with drops of roughly 50 people at a time — families and single adults — continuing on a daily basis. “I have reached out to the White House, and they reached out to DHS, and we had a meeting where they sent FEMA and DHS health officials to Yuma,” Nicholls added.

Programs to reimburse the city for transportation are being set up, he said, but that’s money down the line, not money right now, when it’s most needed. Despite his requests, Nicholls has received no indication from the White House if or when the desert drop-offs will stop. Requiring strained communities to shoulder thousands of dollars in costs every day is “not sustainable,” he said. What’s needed is an orderly, lawful way for people to seek asylum, the mayor argued, and a recognition that people in migration are the targets of systemic violence and exploitation.

“That should shake us to our core,” Nicholls said. “And it shouldn’t matter how you’re registered to vote.”

The shift in CBP’s posture in Ajo is particularly ironic. In 2017, an agent at the local Border Patrol station — nicknamed “Rambo” — concluded that a local retiree named Mimi Phillips was using humanitarian aid as a cover for a rare version of nonprofit human smuggling. Thus began a sweeping crackdown on humanitarian aid providers in Ajo in which nine volunteers were charged with federal crimes for leaving food and water for migrants in the desert. In the most serious case, Scott Warren, an Ajo-based geographer who devoted his time to searching for missing and deceased migrants, faced 20 years in prison for providing two Central Americans with food, water, and a place to sleep. The government’s case collapsed after nearly two years, and Warren was acquitted of all charges.

Residents have banded together to help an influx of migrants abandoned by CBP in small and undeveloped rural town of Ajo, Ariz. on Thursday, April 1, 2021.

Mimi Phillips, an Ajo resident and volunteer, is seen on April 1, 2021.

Photo: Ash Ponders for The Intercept

Today, the same agency that brought those charges is turning to that same network to provide aid to asylum-seekers. Phillips is making food for them.

So far, the cost for the materials has been covered by private donors, Phillips explained as she and group of volunteers put together a week’s worth of meals one afternoon. Some of those donors include individuals who dipped into their Covid-19 relief money.

“We’re hoping, someday, to get government support — I mean, what do communities do?” Phillips asked. “We don’t want hundreds of people just roaming the streets of Ajo wondering what the hell they’re doing here and how we’re going to get out of here.”

The temperatures in the desert are already rising, and as Philipps noted, Ajo’s aging volunteer base can only stand in the heat for so long. Burnout is setting in.

“People are tired,” she said. “It’s consumed our lives.”

The post “It’s Consumed Our Lives”: Volunteers Step In as Border Patrol Drops Migrants Off in Tiny Arizona Towns appeared first on The Intercept.

Chicago Awaits Video of Police Killing of 13-Year-Old Boy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 13/04/2021 - 10:00pm in



The city of Chicago is on edge, haunted by its past and fearful of what lies ahead, for once again a police officer has killed a child on its streets.

On March 29 in Little Village, a predominantly Latino neighborhood on the West Side, police pursued and fatally shot 13-year-old Adam Toledo in what the police department has described as an “armed confrontation.”

In the days since, details have trickled out in a manner that has done little to dispel the climate of distrust that now attends police shootings. On the contrary, the incident has reawakened the collective civic trauma inflicted by the 2014 police murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

In contrast to the administration of her predecessor Rahm Emanuel, which withheld dashcam video of McDonald’s murder from the public for 13 months and then suffered an irremediable collapse of credibility when it was finally released, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration has said it will make relevant video footage public as soon as the Toledo family has had an opportunity to view it.

In anticipation of protests and possible civil unrest after the video footage is released, the Chicago Police Department has informed officers that days off will be canceled and that they will move to 12-hour shifts.

At an April 5 news conference, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown said that “one of his greatest fears,” now realized, “has been a deadly encounter between one of our officers and a juvenile.” He then gave voice to the inevitable refrain on such occasions: “Our officers must make split-second decisions when it comes to the use of deadly force, and that is a heavy burden.”

Brown described the incident. “At approximately 2:36 a.m.,” he said, “ShotSpotter detected eight gunshots” at a particular location in Little Village. ShotSpotter, he explained, “is a gun detection system that operates through a series of sensors to identify potential gunshots” and “alerts officers in real time to the location of gunfire.”

Officers received the notification at 2:37 a.m. and reached the scene in less than a minute. When they arrived, Brown recounted, “they observed two males in a nearby alley. Both males fled. One was armed with a handgun. A foot pursuit ensued, which resulted in a confrontation in the alley.” An officer shot once, fatally striking Toledo in the chest. “A gun was recovered.”

In her remarks at the news conference, Lightfoot spoke forcefully of the urgent need for CPD to develop a new policy on foot pursuits. Although there is much we don’t yet know about the incident, she said, “one issue that is clear is that a foot chase was involved.”

The mayor went on to describe the problem. “Foot pursuits present a significant safety issue, officer safety, but also community safety for the pursued and bystanders,” she said. “And CPD engages in hundreds of foot pursuits annually and many every single day. Police get a call, they see a potential suspect, their adrenaline is pumping, and oftentimes they get separated from their partner, so they’re running on their own through a dense, often dark, urban environment. And to add to that the person being pursued often has a firearm or is suspected to and so does the officer.”

This combination of factors “creates a dangerous environment for all involved — the officer, the person being pursued, and any bystanders,” she said. “So now we cannot and will not push the foot pursuit policy reform off for another day.”

She might have added that foot pursuits most often take place in Black and Latino neighborhoods and that the frantic, adrenaline-saturated dynamics she evoked generate a mode of attention in which threat assessment is likely to be shaped by implicit bias. At such moments, “split-second decision” is a misnomer, for it is the sheer unthinking momentum of the interaction rather than a deliberate decision that results in the use of deadly force.

A ShotSpotter Dispatch program is in operation within the Fusion Watch department at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Headquarters on Jan. 13, 2021, in Las Vegas.

A ShotSpotter Dispatch program is in operation within the Fusion Watch department at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Headquarters on Jan. 13, 2021, in Las Vegas.

Photo: L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP

Does ShotSpotter Increase Danger of Police Shootings?

A good place to begin the reform process Lightfoot has called for would be a critical assessment of ShotSpotter. An ongoing investigation by the MacArthur Justice Center of Northwestern University Law School has yielded evidence that this high-tech tool is wasteful, alienating for community members, and generates intolerable risks of avoidable harms.

Once we know more about what happened on March 29, it may well prove to be the case that ShotSpotter worked as intended. That makes the Toledo incident a powerful occasion for assessing the hypothesis that this technology, as used by CPD, creates an unacceptable risk of producing “split-second” situations — situations that would not otherwise occur — in which officers respond to perceived threats with deadly force.

On their website, ShotSpotter claims 97 percent accuracy. That figure is not, however, the result of rigorous research. In a 2017, a ShotSpotter forensic analyst testified in an attempted murder case in San Francisco. When asked about the company’s guarantee of accuracy, he stated, “Our guarantee was put together by our sales and marketing department, not our engineers.”

Gunshot detection systems increase demands for police resources but do not result in reductions in violent crimes or increases in the number of confirmed shootings.

Remarkably, there are no independent, peer-reviewed studies of ShotSpotter efficacy. There are, however, two prominent studies that conclude gunshot detection systems increase demands for police resources but do not result in reductions in violent crimes or increases in the number of confirmed shootings. (Both studies were published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology; one focused on ShotSpotter in St. Louis, the other on a comparable gunshot detection system in Philadelphia.) For these reasons, a number of cities, San Antonio and Charlotte among them, have canceled their contracts with ShotSpotter.

The team at the MacArthur Justice Center has analyzed data on ShotSpotter alerts in Chicago over a six-month period, from July 2019 through December 2019. The fundamental problem with the ShotSpotter technology is that it detects loud noises, gunshots among them. In a dense urban environment, this produces a high percentage of “false positives”: i.e., alerts that may or may not have been prompted by gunfire but lead the police to find no evidence of a gun crime or any other criminal activity. There are different ways of calculating false positives. Taking a conservative approach, the percentage of ShotSpotter alerts that resulted in no case report being filed was 85.35 percent.

The percentage of alerts that resulted in no case report being filed is not only evidence of unreliability but also a measure of waste. During the six-month period analyzed by the MacArthur Justice Center, there were 9,961 ShotSpotter alerts. Of these, 8,502 did not result in a case report. In other words, on 8,502 calls for service initiated by ShotSpotter police were called out to a specific location to investigate and found nothing worth reporting.

ShotSpotter is operative only in low-income Black and Hispanic neighborhoods and is coupled with software, also sold by ShotSpotter, that guides deployment decisions. The inevitable rejoinder will be: That’s where the crime is. Here, we encounter the circular logic of predictive policing by which supposedly scientific methods yield racist results, as overpolicing of communities of color drives an “evidence-based” dynamic that produces more overpolicing and attendant harms.

Those harms include the impact on targeted communities of the excess ShotSpotter-initiated calls for service that prove fruitless. Such interactions between police and community members are not only wasteful, they are also likely to be alienating after the fashion of blanket stop-and-frisk policies.

“Only people in the Black and Hispanic neighborhoods surveilled by ShotSpotter have to contend with the burden of thousands of unnecessary and potentially dangerous police deployments,” said Jonathan Manes, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center. “CPD’s use of ShotSpotter trades on a veneer of objectivity, but, like many high-tech strategies, the system ends up reinforcing racial disparities in policing.”

ShotSpotter dramatically increases the number of unnecessary police-community interactions and thereby increases the probability of bad outcomes that would not otherwise occur.

The large number of excess calls for service increases the probability of catastrophic encounters between police and community members. Again and again, incidents of police violence have arisen from relatively trivial occasions (e.g., a woman driving a car with a broken tail light, a man selling loose cigarettes, a child playing with a toy gun in a playground, et cetera). In view of the potential for any police encounter to derail, the first order of business is to reduce the number of unnecessary interactions. ShotSpotter does the opposite: It dramatically increases the number of such interactions and thereby increases the probability of bad outcomes that would not otherwise occur. This is all the more concerning in view of the aggressive manner in which officers, responding to what they believe may be gunfire, are likely to approach those they find at the location to which a ShotSpotter alert directs them.

Taken together, these findings are “shocking,” said Manes. “The ShotSpotter system in Chicago prompts thousands of deployments by police hunting for gunfire in vain. The system puts police on high alert, telling them that shots were just fired, but more than 85 percent of the time they don’t turn up evidence of any crime, let alone gun crime. These dead-end searches for gunfire happen nearly 50 times on an average day in Chicago. Each deployment is a powder keg situation for residents who just happen to be in the vicinity of a false alert.”

We don’t yet know what happened on the night police killed Adam Toledo. Perhaps officers arrived on the scene, found themselves under grave threat, and fired in self-defense. But it’s also possible that they rushed to the location of the alert and jumped out of their vehicle; that witnessing this, two individuals in a nearby alley ran away; that the officers pursued them and were carried to the fateful split second in which one of them shot the 13-year-old not by an immediate threat but by the blind momentum of the encounter.

Whether or not that happened on March 29, it’s all too easy to imagine it happening. In a society where there are more guns than people and in a state that permits concealed carry, it is arguably inevitable that there will be such outcomes, in view of the large number of excess police-community interactions prompted by “false positive” ShotSpotter alerts.

In response to a request for comment, spokesperson Sam Klepper stated, “ShotSpotter’s accuracy rate for detecting gunshots is 97% across the US for the last two years. This includes a false positive rate of 0.5%. Results are reviewed with agencies annually. We have more than 110 cities using ShotSpotter and extremely high customer satisfaction and renewal rates.”

This problematic technology is also extremely expensive. Chicago’s contract with ShotSpotter, which expires and is up for renewal in August, cost $30 million over three years. Then there is the cumulative cost of all the fruitless deployments in response to excess ShotSpotter calls for service. Above all, there is the incalculable cost of deaths at the hands of the police that could have been avoided.

In a Securities and Exchange Commission filing dated March 29, 2021 — the day Toledo was killed — ShotSpotter noted among risk factors for investors:

We may be adversely affected by ongoing social unrest, protests against racial inequality, protests against police brutality and movements such as “Defund the Police” or increases in such unrest that may occur in the future. These events may directly or indirectly affect police agency budgets and funding available to current and potential customers. Participants in these events may also attempt to create the perception that our solutions are contributing to the “problem,” which may adversely affect the Company, its business and results of operations, including its revenues, earnings and cash flows from operations.

ShotSpotter has reason to be concerned.

The post Chicago Awaits Video of Police Killing of 13-Year-Old Boy appeared first on The Intercept.

Minneapolis Curfew Sows Confusion for Those With Covid-19 Vaccine Appointments

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 13/04/2021 - 11:12am in



Following the killing of Daunte Wright by police in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center, authorities were expecting unrest in the Twin Cities on Monday evening. So state, county, and city government officials took what has become a familiar tack to keep protests at bay: setting a widespread curfew after 7 p.m. local time.

The curfew, which covers Minneapolis, St. Paul, and other areas in the region, includes exemptions for credentialed members of the press, law enforcement, emergency responders, those traveling to and from work, and preselected community patrol organizations. The haste with which the curfew was imposed, just hours before it was to go into effect, left many area residents wondering if Covid-19 vaccination and testing appointments were exempt.

The confusion over Covid-19 vaccination and testing appointments was effectively the collateral damage for a curfew aimed at shutting down massive protests that had not yet materialized, much less been accompanied by any lawbreaking. Instead, curfews imposed over the past year in major urban areas have tended to sow chaos and effectively criminalized protest activity.

“These orders risk criminalizing everyday activities such as Covid appointments and people attending Ramadan prayers.”

“These orders risk criminalizing everyday activities such as Covid appointments and people attending Ramadan prayers,” said Jana Kooren, community engagement director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, noting that Monday night was the first night of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. “Law enforcement is the very institution people are protesting and the police are the ones enforcing those curfews.” Kooren said the ACLU of Minnesota is calling for the curfew to be rescinded.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s office told The Intercept that coronavirus-related appointments could still be kept. “People seeking COVID vaccines are exempt from curfew under the ‘seeking care’ provision,” a spokesperson said in a statement made about two and a half hours before the curfew went into effect. “People will be able to travel to their COVID testing/vaccine locations. They will not have to show vaccine/test appointment info.”

Just how the mayor’s office would be getting the information out to those with appointments remained unclear. Two Twin Cities residents, who both asked for anonymity, told The Intercept that they had not initially known about the exemptions and considered delaying vaccination appointments for themselves and loved ones. The city administration, though, was out of step with the state health department. In an email that went out around the same time as the mayor’s office statement to The Intercept, the Minnesota Department of Health declared that it would be shutting down a major city Covid-19 testing site in less than an hour, at 5:30 p.m., so residents could get home before curfew.

The emergency and curfew orders, issued by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, added another layer of tension to a city already on edge following Wright’s killing and the ongoing murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, whose May 2020 killing of George Floyd set off the U.S.’s largest anti-racist protest movement in a generation.

Efforts to combat the coronavirus epidemic appear to be collateral damage of the curfew, while the targets are the protest movements themselves. Increasingly, cities are turning to curfews as a way to squelch protest in anticipation of large demonstrations, not as responses to them.

The uprisings sparked last summer by Floyd’s killing resulted in a host of large urban areas declaring curfews, often with little notice to residents. Largely ineffective at stopping mass demonstrations, the curfews caused escalations when police unleashed violence on crowds who defied the orders. In places like New York City, where the police crackdowns were harsh, the curfew was weaponized against protesters and bystanders alike.

The criminalization of these protesters created conditions — forcing protesters together to make arrests, then holding them in custody in tight quarters — which could increase the spread of Covid-19, New York magazine reported at the time.

Minneapolis can ill afford a spike in cases. Covid-19 hospitalization rates in Minnesota have doubled in the last three weeks, according to numbers just released by the Department of Health.

In Minneapolis on Monday, a protest vigil for Wright was organized and publicly announced well before the declaration of the curfew. Asked whether people would be arrested for attending the vigil, Minnesota’s top security official, Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington, only added to the confusion: “I can’t answer that question, because I don’t know enough about where the vigil is.” Local organizers scrambled to move the vigil ahead an hour in an effort to de-escalate any potential situations before they started.

A curfew was also imposed for Monday night in Brooklyn Center, where Wright was killed. Over the weekend, protests erupted in the suburb and police announced that, on Sunday night, between 25 and 30 people were arrested in relation to the growing unrest.

Rather than crack down on and criminalize protesters with a curfew, the ACLU of Minnesota’s Kooren said the focus should be on the policies that give rise to police killings like those of Wright and Floyd. “We should be addressing the underlying issues that caused Mr. Wright to be pulled over in the first place,” she said. “Law enforcement should be deprioritizing low-level crimes that cause people to be entangled with the police in the first place, which result in so many deaths and killings.”

The post Minneapolis Curfew Sows Confusion for Those With Covid-19 Vaccine Appointments appeared first on The Intercept.

The Long Shadow of Virginia’s Death Penalty

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 11/04/2021 - 10:20pm in



On a rainy Wednesday afternoon in late March, a stream of cars pulled up to a checkpoint at the Greensville Correctional Center, just outside the rural town of Jarratt, Virginia. An employee with the Virginia Department of Corrections inspected driver’s licenses and took temperatures, then waved each vehicle up a narrow road toward the parking lot, where reporters waited for the governor to arrive.

The media had visited this parking lot many times before. Since 1991, the year Virginia’s death chamber was moved to Greensville from the old state penitentiary in Richmond, more than 100 people had been executed inside the prison. There was Roger Coleman, whose vociferous claims of innocence before his 1992 execution were debunked years later by DNA. There was John Allen Muhammad, known as one of the Beltway snipers, who terrorized the D.C. area before being executed in 2009. And there was Teresa Lewis, killed the following year for a double murder for hire — and the sole woman to die in Virginia’s death chamber in nearly a century.

Now reporters gathered in the same parking lot for a very different event. In a milestone that seemed to catch lawmakers themselves by surprise, Virginia had become the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty. The signing ceremony put racial justice front and center, casting the death penalty as a historical relic rooted in slavery and lynching. Introducing Gov. Ralph Northam, his chief legal counsel, Rita Davis, greeted the attendees with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” she said. “But today, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, it bends sharply towards justice.”

Among those gathered inside the tent was Dale Brumfield, a local author and field organizer for Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. His most recent book, “Railroaded,” profiles the first 100 people killed in Virginia’s electric chair, 87 of whom were Black. One was a teenage girl, executed in 1912 on her 17th birthday. In a story for Richmond’s alt-weekly, Brumfield linked these killings, little more than legal lynchings, to the first executions in the so-called modern death penalty era. On the night that Linwood Briley was executed in 1984, for example, a white mob reveled outside, “shouting racial epithets and waving homemade signs declaring such racist invectives as ‘kill the negro,’ ‘fry Briley fry,’ and far worse,” he wrote.

Brumfield echoed what others have said about the abolition law: “It happened way sooner than I ever thought it would,” he said. Although there were several contributing factors — the Democratic takeover of the legislature key among them — everyone agreed that one event had fueled the urgency around abolition: the killing of George Floyd in May 2020. The unprecedented wave of protests not only led to the toppling of 26 Confederate monuments in Virginia between May and September, but also “turbocharged criminal justice reform in Virginia across the board,” said VADP Executive Director Michael Stone.

Northam had called a special session to be held in August, which was intended to tackle budget challenges due to Covid-19. Instead, criminal justice reform dominated the session. Lawmakers brought a slew of bills aimed at police accountability, sentencing reform, and racial justice. Politicians who had theoretically supported but never acted on abolition legislation decided they were ready to pass a bill during the regular session. “The whole Black Lives Matter movement suddenly made it a priority,” Stone said.

It didn’t hurt that the governor himself had something to prove when it came to his commitment to racial justice. Northam faced calls to resign in 2019 after a photo emerged from an old yearbook that appeared to show him in blackface. Compounding his disastrous response to the controversy — first apologizing, then denying it was him in the photo — Northam then held a press conference in which he admitted to having worn shoe polish on his cheeks to imitate Michael Jackson and almost did the moonwalk on stage.

Now the governor was invoking the racist history of capital punishment. Of the 377 people executed for murder in Virginia between 1900 and 1999, 296 were Black. “The racism and discrimination of our past still echoes in our systems today,” Northam said. He cited the case of Earl Washington Jr., a Black man sentenced to death in 1984 for a crime he did not commit. After giving a coerced confession, Washington came within days of execution only to be exonerated in 2000. “Can we really, truly be sure that there aren’t others?” the governor asked.

“I’ll be damned. I think we did this.”

Northam introduced Scott Surovell, the bill’s lead sponsor in the state Senate. Surovell had toured Greensville in the early 1990s as a governor’s fellow straight out of college. He remembered seeing the electric chair “sitting right there in the middle of the room. And I can’t tell you the impact it has on you … to see that device, to have to think about how many people sat in it.” He recalled a sense of revulsion and shame. “I never thought I’d be back here today doing this, I can tell you that.”

As the bill’s sponsors spoke, Kenneth Plum sat a few feet away in the audience. The longest serving member of Virginia’s House of Delegates, Plum was first elected in 1977, the year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Gregg v. Georgia ushered in the “modern” death penalty era in the United States. Over the next three decades, Plum tried to push back against the death penalty but was stymied by politics. “So much of the discussion about it was whether or not you could get reelected if you voted to get rid of it,” Plum recalled in a phone call after the signing. “And when I look back on this, it’s disappointing to realize that that was the driving force for keeping it in place for a lot of people.”

Plum had driven four hours for the signing ceremony. “I haven’t been to another bill signing since the pandemic,” he said. Virginia was on a roll passing progressive legislation, but this one was especially meaningful. “It was kind of like, ‘I’ll be damned. I think we did this.’”

Dale Brumfield, field Director for Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, left, and Jack Payden-Travers stand at the Greensville Correctional Center, on July 6, 2017, in Jarratt, Va.

Dale Brumfield, field director for Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, left, and Jack Payden-Travers stand at the Greensville Correctional Center on July 6, 2017, in Jarratt, Va.

Photo: Steve Helber/AP

Careers Built on Capital Punishment

The end of the death penalty in Virginia is part of a larger and now familiar story nationwide. Like almost every other jurisdiction in the country, Virginia had already seen a sharp decline in new death sentences and executions. Thanks in large part to a network of regional capital defender offices that vastly improved the lawyering done in death penalty cases, there had not been a new death sentence since 2011.

Still, it is hard to overstate the significance of Virginia’s abolition law. Counting executions in the colonial era, the commonwealth carried out more executions than any state in the U.S. — and was second only to Texas in the number of people put to death in the modern era. This was largely due to an appellate process designed to swiftly send defendants to the execution chamber. Virginia had the dubious distinction of killing the condemned faster than any jurisdiction in the nation.

Virginia had the dubious distinction of killing the condemned faster than any jurisdiction in the nation.

Virginia was also a case study in the death penalty as a bipartisan project. Of the 113 killings carried out since the state resumed executions in 1982, 47 were overseen by Democratic governors. The last three executions were approved by former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who most recently denied clemency to William Morva, a man with severe mental illness. In the years since Morva’s execution, the daughter of one of his victims had become a vocal critic of capital punishment.

As in other states, Virginia’s modern death penalty law was once supposed to be reserved for a narrow class of murders. After lawmakers revised the statute in the wake of the landmark 1972 Supreme Court ruling in Furman v. Georgia, which declared the death penalty unfairly and thus unconstitutionally applied across the country, lawmakers immediately started adding crimes to the list of offenses that made a defendant eligible for death. Between the late 1970s and the end of the 1990s, lawmakers voted to expand the death penalty over a dozen times, to include offenses ranging from the murder of a police officer to the murder of a child under 14 years old by a person over the age of 21.

Few politicians were as aggressive in pushing these laws as the elected prosecutors who made up the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys. For years, the group “routinely opposed any kind of death penalty reform legislation,” recalled Stone. But over the past decade, Virginia voters began electing commonwealth attorneys who ran on promises of criminal justice reform. As Stone recalled, “we ended up getting the support of 12 commonwealth attorneys in support of abolition,” including those representing counties that once routinely sent defendants to death row. With their members divided on the matter, VACA stayed silent on the abolition bill.

Among the new crop of commonwealth attorneys was Amy Ashworth, who replaced famed Prince William County prosecutor Paul Ebert after he retired in 2018. During Ebert’s five decades in office, he won 13 death sentences, making the county one of the country’s top death penalty jurisdictions. In a sign of the times, Ebert failed to win a death sentence in his final murder trial, later musing to the Washington Post that the county had changed. “The demographics of Prince William were relatively conservative all those years and much more pro-death,” Ebert said. “And I always knew someone on the jury. Now, I seldom know someone on the jury.”

Like numerous prosecutors of his generation who built careers on capital punishment, Ebert reveled in his tough-on-crime reputation. He also exemplifies the lack of accountability for prosecutors who abused the power they wielded against defendants. Ebert presided over one of Virginia’s most egregious death penalty cases in recent memory: that of Justin Wolfe, who was just 19 years old when he was arrested for a murder he swore he did not commit. Wolfe spent more than a decade on death row insisting on his innocence before ultimately taking a plea deal. For Wolfe and countless others whose lives were shaped by Virginia’s death penalty system, abolition does not bring their ordeal to a close.

Terri Steinberg (L), whose son is on death row, speaks with Delia Perez Meyer, whose brother is on death row, during the 20th annual Starvin' for Justice fast and vigil against the death penalty in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington on June 29, 2013.

Terri Steinberg, left, whose son is on death row, speaks with Delia Perez Meyer, whose brother is on death row, during the 20th annual Starvin’ for Justice fast and vigil against the death penalty in Washington, D.C., on June 29, 2013.

Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

A Bittersweet Victory

Wolfe’s mother, Terri Steinberg, was at home in Fairfax the day the bill was signed. A dedicated activist who traveled the country with an abolitionist group called the Journey of Hope, she’d hoped to be at the signing ceremony but was unable to make the trip. Although Steinberg was overjoyed at the news that the legislation had passed, the victory was bittersweet. The same week Northam signed the bill into law, her son turned 40 years old behind bars.

Steinberg has told her story countless times. Her oldest son, Justin, started selling marijuana while in high school. In 2001, a former classmate named Owen Barber killed another drug dealer named Daniel Petrole, the son of a former Secret Service agent, then claimed he carried out the murder at Wolfe’s command. After a three-week trial that leaned heavily on Barber’s self-serving testimony, Wolfe was sentenced to die.

After years of denying that Wolfe had ordered Barber to kill anyone, Wolfe and his lawyers discovered a police report that Ebert had hidden from the defense at trial. It showed how a Prince William County detective had coerced Barber into blaming Wolfe for the murder by threatening him with the death penalty. In an evidentiary hearing in 2010, Barber testified that “they said they wanted the truth, but at the same time, they said that this is what you have got to say or you are getting the chair.”

“They said they wanted the truth, but at the same time, they said that this is what you have got to say or you are getting the chair.”

Such violations are not uncommon in death penalty cases — nor do they necessarily lead to new trials. But the police report was not the only evidence that Ebert had failed to disclose. In fact, at the same hearing, Ebert defended his misconduct by essentially explaining that his office did not have an “open file” policy for a reason: He did not want defense attorneys to have evidence that might exculpate their client. In his experience, he testified, “when you have information that is given to certain counsel and certain defendants, they are able to fabricate a defense around what is provided.”

In 2011, U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson found Ebert’s conduct “not only unconstitutional in regards to due process, but abhorrent to the judicial process,” vacating Wolfe’s conviction. Although the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Jackson’s order in 2012 — lambasting Ebert’s “flabbergasting explanation” for withholding exculpatory evidence — the commonwealth refused to give up. A few days after the ruling, Ebert visited Barber in prison, accused him of violating his plea deal, and told him that a revocation of the agreement would leave him eligible for the death penalty himself. “In effect, they applied the same pressure that had been applied before Wolfe’s trial,” wrote Slate’s legal correspondent Dahlia Lithwick, who followed the case for years.

Things only got worse from there. After Jackson decried Ebert’s attempts to pressure Barber — and ordered Wolfe’s release in December 2012 — Ebert appealed again. This time, the 4th Circuit found that the judge was wrong. While Wolfe remained in jail, prosecutors revamped their case, casting him as a kingpin in a “continuing criminal enterprise” and bringing new charges against him — a number of which carried the death penalty. Steinberg went from shopping for new clothes in anticipation of her son’s homecoming to facing a brand-new death penalty trial.

“He watched so many of his friends on death row go through the mental break caused by solitary and was starting to feel some of that himself.”

By then, Steinberg was watching her son increasingly struggle. The trauma of death row and multiple execution dates had been hard enough. Now he was languishing in isolation at the Prince William County jail with no end in sight. “When the case was vacated, it went back to Virginia to be retried within 120 days,” Steinberg said. “And before you know it, it was four years. … He had gotten to the point where he had started to feel the effects of solitary confinement. He watched so many of his friends on death row go through the mental break caused by solitary and was starting to feel some of that himself.”

In March 2016, Steinberg sat down to write an email to friends and fellow activists. The subject was “Justin.” She thanked them for their support over the previous 15 years and told them she wanted them to hear what she was going to share from her rather than through the press or social media. Prosecutors in Wolfe’s case had offered him a plea, and he had decided to take it. Rather than face the threat of a new death sentence — or another decade of appeals — he agreed to plead guilty to first-degree murder and was resentenced to 41 years in prison.

“I was devastated,” Steinberg recalls. She did not read her son’s handwritten, four-page statement until it was published by the Washington Post, which called it a “stunning reversal” that “essentially validated the prosecution’s consistent version of events.” In fact, Steinberg said, although the letter was supposed to be in her son’s words, he told her he’d been made to rewrite it numerous times to satisfy prosecutors.

“Justin took this plea under such duress,” Steinberg said. A new legal team has since challenged Wolfe’s plea deal, arguing that he was coerced by vindictive prosecutors. In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Virginia to grant a hearing on the matter, but it has yet to be resolved.

On the day the final vote came down to end capital punishment in Virginia, Steinberg was at work, unable to follow the vote. It was only when an activist friend called her and said “It’s done” that she started to cry. “There was just tears of relief, joy, sadness.” She sent a message to her son right away. “He called me within a half an hour,” she said. “And we celebrated on the phone.”

At the prison where he is currently incarcerated, Wolfe works in the area that receives new transfers. Steinberg says her son hopes he’ll have a chance to see the two remaining men on death row once they are reclassified and moved. One of them has an innocence claim that she hopes will lead to his conviction being overturned. “But,” Steinberg said, “the system doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to.”

You’re Saving All of Us

In all, 18 people were executed in Virginia while Wolfe was on death row. Among them were friends who had tried to help him adjust to his surroundings. When Wolfe first arrived at Sussex State Prison at age 21, Steinberg recalled, “someone had put together a brown paper bag full of candy bars, soap, magazines — things that he would need when he first got there, because he had nothing.” The welcome package had been arranged in part by Dennis Orbe, who would be executed in 2004. On the night he was killed, Steinberg drove Orbe’s spiritual adviser to Greensville and back.

Just as her son had forged unlikely friendships with his neighbors, Steinberg found community among the activists and loved ones who fought for the condemned. She spent hours on the road with the grandmother of Ricky Gray, who was 80 years old and had diabetes but was nonetheless determined to see her grandson before she died; Gray was executed in 2017. Before Virginia executed John Allen Muhammad in 2009, she got a letter thanking her for raising a son as compassionate as Wolfe, along with her work against the death penalty. “I know you got into this to save your son, but ultimately, you’re saving all of us,” Muhammad wrote.

One of the last people to be executed before Wolfe left death row was Teresa Lewis. As the only woman under a death sentence in Virginia, she was held inside one of the isolation wings at the Fluvanna Women’s Correctional Center, almost two hours away from Greensville. Shortly after Lewis was executed in September 2010, Steinberg was on a panel with Lewis’s defense attorney, James Rocap. “He was so broken by it all,” she recalled. “I really thought they would be able to save her.”

Rocap is a lawyer handling civil cases at a firm in Washington, D.C. In a phone call following the signing ceremony, he recalled the many problems with Lewis’s case. Lewis was convicted in 2002 for paying two men to kill her husband, Julian, and his 25-year-old son, Charles. Although she quickly confessed to having arranged the murders in order to collect insurance money — and was portrayed as the mastermind behind the crime — questions emerged about the commonwealth’s theory. Lewis was evaluated by an expert who said her intellectual functioning placed her among the “lowest 3% of our society.” In 2004, one of the gunmen, Matthew Shallenberger, who later died by suicide, admitted to an investigator that the plan had been “entirely my idea” and that he had manipulated Lewis, who was in love with him, “eager to please me,” and “not very smart.”

“She was basically duped,” Rocap said. “Was she a member of the conspiracy? Yes, she was a member of the conspiracy. … Was she responsible in the same way that someone who intentionally, and purposely, and so on, commits a horrific crime like this? No, she wasn’t.”

Lewis’s execution attracted attention well beyond Virginia. Novelist John Grisham wrote an op-ed calling for clemency. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad invoked the case in a speech in New York, accusing Americans of hypocrisy for raising cries against the death sentence of an Iranian woman found guilty of adultery while appearing to ignore the case of Lewis. Although they did not receive as much publicity, the most sincere and heartfelt appeals came from the women who had gotten to know Lewis behind bars.

Death penalty protestor and former Fluvanna womens prison chaplain, Rev. Lynn Litchfield, reads a passage from the bible outside the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Va., on Sept. 23, 2010.

Death penalty protester and former Fluvanna prison chaplain Rev. Lynn Litchfield reads a passage from the Bible outside the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Va., on Sept. 23, 2010.

Photo: Steve Helber/AP

In solitary confinement at Fluvanna, Lewis encountered other women who had been sent to the segregation unit. “They would be next door to her, and she would be able to talk to them through the walls,” Rocap said. In a clemency petition he sent to then Gov. Bob McDonnell in advance of Lewis’s scheduled execution, Rocap included numerous letters describing how Lewis had become a counselor and religious mentor to the women she met.

A library worker who brought books to the segregation building recalled giving Lewis a red hymnal that had been donated. “I heard stories from other inmates about how she would calm the cell block at night — one needs to understand the hysteria and craziness that goes on there at night — by talking to any inmate who was hysterical and then singing her hymns of comfort and joy,” she wrote. “It was the only way they survived their time in that horribly punishing environment.” Another woman recalled how she’d gotten through a particularly upsetting moment by singing “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan with her. For Lewis to be executed, she wrote, “a lot of women in the future will not have the blessed opportunity to be encouraged by her.”

The decision to kill a woman who was not only remorseful but also clearly doing more good than harm was emblematic of the death penalty’s cruelty and irrationality.

McDonnell rejected Lewis’s petition. To Rocap, the decision to kill a woman who was not only remorseful but also clearly doing more good than harm was emblematic of the death penalty’s cruelty and irrationality. In a testimonial he wrote after she was killed, Rocap recalled the last day of his client’s life, how she visited with her son and spoke on the phone with her daughter, later “consoling and encouraging those of us who had come to try to console and encourage her. She did not need it; we did.”

In her final moments, Lewis asked Rocap to pray with her and her spiritual adviser, prison chaplain Julie Perry. Separated by bars in a cell adjacent to the hallway that led to the execution chamber, “the three of us joined hands through the meal tray slot, awkwardly at first,” Rocap wrote. “Her left hand was cradled in both of mine.” At 8:45 p.m., prison guards came and tapped his shoulder, saying, “It’s time.”

A Washington Post reporter would later describe Rocap and Perry looking “crushed and exhausted” as they entered the witness area. Lewis was brought inside the execution chamber, “ushered by guards in blue uniforms who held her elbows.” The curtains closed while officials inserted the intravenous lines then reopened to show Lewis lying on the gurney, her arms outstretched. She asked if the daughter of her slain husband was present, then apologized. “I just want Kathy to know that I love you and I’m very sorry,” she said.

Rocap was struck by his client’s courage and faith before her death. But he describes the execution as an act of madness. “I just can’t imagine how anybody could be there and watch what happened, no matter who the person was, and come away thinking, ‘Yeah, that was good. … That is what we should be doing,’” he said. Afterward, he remembers telling people that more Americans should witness executions to see what was being done in their names.

Rocap was not directly involved in the abolition legislation. When it passed, he remembers saying to himself, “Why didn’t they do this 15 years ago, before Teresa’s case?” Although the case does not haunt him as frequently as it used to, memories of the execution return at unexpected times. He recalls some years back watching an episode of “The Good Wife” that began with a scene involving an execution chamber. “It wasn’t in Virginia, but it looked identical to the death chamber in Virginia,” he said. “I was watching it with my wife, and I literally had to get up and walk out of the room.”

Former executioner Jerry Givens attending a high school basketball game where some of the boys he mentors are playing on Jan. 15, 2013 in Richmond, VA.

Former executioner Jerry Givens attends a high school basketball game where some of the boys he mentors are playing on Jan. 15, 2013, in Richmond, Va.

Photo: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Executioner’s Trauma

Of all those impacted by the executions in Virginia, perhaps no one carried more complex trauma than the people who carried them out. Jerry Givens executed 62 of the 113 people killed in the death chamber only to become a vocal death penalty abolitionist. Givens had kept his work a secret from his own family, hoping to protect them from the horror of what he was tasked with doing. He later told his story to audiences across the country. Some of his final speeches were delivered in Terre Haute, Indiana, home of the federal execution chamber, where he warned of the impact Donald Trump’s planned execution spree would have on prison employees. “People think you can do something like that and then go home and forget about it,” he said in the fall of 2019. “No. It’s something that is stuck with you.”

Givens did not live to see his home state abolish the death penalty: He died in April 2020 of Covid-19. But his influence was clear during the debate among lawmakers. Speaking on the floor of the state Senate in early February, Sen. Jennifer McClellan recalled hearing him testify in opposition to expanding the death penalty over the years. “I have heard the words of Jerry Givens over and over and over again in my mind,” she said. She remembered how haunted he had been by the case of Earl Washington, the man who falsely confessed and was later exonerated. “He realized the toll it would have taken on him had he executed an innocent man.”

Givens’s family was elated at the news that Virginia had finally abolished the death penalty. “I can recall the moment we found out the law was passed,” Valerie Travers, Givens’s niece, said in a phone call after the signing ceremony. “I think he would have been very happy to see that his work has finally paid off.” It was especially meaningful for Givens’s widow, Sadie. “I was rejoicing for him because I know what he put into it,” she said. For years, she had seen him “thinking, meditating, praying” over the issue. “I know deep within my soul that he visualized this happening. … He would always say ‘Things are gonna happen. This is gonna happen.’ … If there’s such thing as looking down, he’s rejoicing because he said it would.”

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