In this week’s Extra! Extra! we discuss some of the recent abuses committed by the criminal justice system, revisit the topic of COVID-19 vaccine authorization (after a robust discussion on this in the comments last week) and look at a few situations unfolding around the world.
Natalie: There’s something particularly ironic that the son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia would, in the final throes of his tenure, seek to undermine the protections that the Court affirmed in Bostock v. Clayton County. As Mark Joseph Stern points out in this article, this will likely be undone in 40 days by the Biden administration — I’m hoping that Biden picks Julie Su to be the new Labor Secretary — but with the Trump influence on the judiciary, “it gives us a preview of the looming battles over employers’ authority to impose their own bigotries on their workforce.”
Recent News on Police Brutality
Natalie: This is fucking exhausting.
The police in Columbus are trying, desperately, to find a way to make Casey Goodson Jr complicit in his own death by saying, in large part, that — as was the case in the shooting death of Philando Castile — the Second Amendment just doesn’t apply to black people.
Himani: Natalie has really said everything there is to say about this. It’s horrifying; it’s depressing; the police have got to go. Few, if any, among us doubt that cops lie pretty much all the time but especially in situations like this. But in case anyone needed further evidence of that fact, ProPublica has been diving into civilian complaints against the NYPD and, last week, published an investigative report into the murder of Kawaski Trawick in April 2019. Among the findings from their reporting (which, again, are findings we all pretty much know at this point): “The NYPD has long billed itself as a leader in modern policing, including what it calls ‘a best practices approach’ to de-escalation and handling people in crisis. … Yet officers who helped craft the NYPD’s de-escalation training told ProPublica the department has never really committed to making it work.” Obama and Biden can say whatever they want but the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that police “reform” does not work.
Natalie: Imagine my shock. My hope is that the Department of Justice in the Biden administration reinstates the Obama-era policy to stop giving military gear to local police departments. Perhaps, if we trained our police officers as thoroughly as we trained our military, cops wouldn’t cling to that equipment like a toddler playing dress-up.
Natalie: What a frustrating end to a debate that started out with so much promise. According to the Star Tribune, “The council also placed $11.4 million in a reserve fund they created. That fund will include about $6.4 million that was included in Frey’s plan to hire two police recruit classes, and about $5 million that could be used to offset cuts council members made to police overtime.” That $8 million looks paltry by comparison.
I wonder: if it didn’t happen in Minneapolis, after Castile and George Floyd, can it happen anywhere?
Himani: This is so incredibly infuriating, but I think what also gets me is how this article (and a few others like it that I read) gloss over the important details of these supposed budget cuts. For instance, many articles exclude the information Natalie provided above that shows how the $8 million reduction is actually a whole lot less than that in the context of the city’s budget as a whole. We saw the same thing play out in New York City over the summer and now, months later: a supposed $1 billion cut to the NYPD was hardly what the headlines seemed to suggest and paled in comparison to the hiring freezes and cuts to other departments. If journalists are going to report about defund efforts across the country, they need to do so honestly.
And Relatedly: America’s Criminal Justice System as a Whole Is Broken
Himani: I can’t say any of the findings from this investigative report are surprising, exactly, but they are incredibly damning. The NYPD are using the excuse of stopping the sex trade to, essentially, create a new version of stop and frisk, targeting Black, brown, immigrant and trans people with literally zero accountability for all of the wrongful allegations and false imprisonments. Meanwhile, cops are getting rich off of the scheme and are also using it as an excuse to sexually assault people they go onto arrest for crimes they often did not commit. Ultimately, the findings of this article make a powerful case for decriminalizing sex work and, of course, defunding the police.
Natalie: Last night, the American government killed Brandon Bernard for a murder that he did not commit. Efforts to delay the execution were thwarted by the Republican “pro-life” majority on the Supreme Court. Justice Sotomayor — who I love with the power of a thousand suns — dissented from the denial of certiorari and application for stay, writing, “the Court allows the Federal Government to execute Brandon Bernard, despite Bernard’s troubling allegations that the Government secured his death sentence by withholding exculpatory evidence and knowingly eliciting false testimony against him. Bernard has never had the opportunity to test the merits of those claims in court. Now he never will.”
There had been a lot of public pressure to get a stay for Bernard; his execution went on… the first time in 130 years that an execution has occurred during the lame-duck period. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are both opposed to the death penalty.
There will be another federal execution on Friday.
Himani: So this whole situation is truly horrifying from beginning to end. And on the subject of what has and is happening, I don’t have much to add beyond what Natalie has already shared. What this also brings to mind for me is the recently-released documentary Crazy, Not Insane which I am too terrified to watch, but I read a whole slew of reviews about because I found Dorothy Otnow Lewis to be fascinating and her research compelling. Her life’s work has been studying serial killers to understand what makes them do the heinous things they do because she believes that no one is simply “born evil.” My understanding (again, without having actually seen the documentary) is that her findings point to a few factors: experiences of child abuse so gruesome it led to the development of dissociative identity disorder, brain damage in the part of the brain that controls impulses and a susceptibility (genetic or otherwise) to mental illness.
The New York Times review recounts one part of the documentary where Lewis interviewed an electrician whose job it was to kill death row inmates. She found that he was as “confused and muddle-headed, as battered and beaten, as the violent men I had interviewed on death row.” After the documentary came out, the Guardian interviewed Lewis and eventually the subject of the family separations at the border came up, of which Lewis said: “This is torture. Anyone who cannot recognize that has really had a very ungiving, very unloving upbringing. … Here these people – I don’t know if you can say these men, because it was a woman [Kirstjen Nielsen] who signed off on [the policy] – but these men all raised their hands and said yeah, go ahead, do it. And you just wonder: what on earth possessed them to do that?” Which is the same question that has directed her research on serial killers for so many decades.
I bring all this up because sometimes I also sit and wonder: how exactly, as a society, do we differentiate between, say, a serial killer who has murdered a dozen people and political leaders like Bill Barr and Donald Trump who, through their policies, words and actions, have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, and yet they still sleep at night telling themselves they are not responsible?
Also, On the Other Side of the Atlantic
Natalie: Apparently, police unions are terrible everywhere.
COVID-19 Update: The End of the Pandemic Is Visible Now — But Still Distant
Himani: Last week, the U.K. became the first country to offer emergency authorization to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19. We had a robust discussion in the comments section of the Extra! Extra! post reinforcing the significance of this decision. Bahrain and Canada have followed suit in granting emergency authorization for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. In the U.S., an advisory panel has voted overwhelmingly in favor of allowing the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to be used among the public. The FDA is expected to make its decision about authorizing the use of the vaccine today.
In the wake of the U.K.’s decision last week, leaders from the W.H.O. reiterated an important message: the pandemic is not over. W.H.O. emergency expert Mike Ryan noted, “We have to add vaccines into an existing public health strategy. [emphasis added]” The W.H.O. panel, which included Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, emphasized the importance of continuing social distancing protocols going into the holiday season and beyond, even as vaccine production and distribution ramps up. Importantly and relatedly, at this point there is not enough data to say whether any of the current COVID vaccines (including the one from Pfizer/BioNTech) can prevent transmission of COVID. Scientists and researchers don’t know yet whether it’s possible for a vaccinated person to get COVID and spread it asymptomatically, which makes continuing to follow social distancing protocols of paramount importance even as vaccines become available more broadly.
When it comes to the anti-vaxxers, I’m not sure why it came as a surprise to me that they are chummying it up with the anti-maskers. But, setting aside their baseless concerns, one thing of note in the third article linked above is that various unions and lobbyists on behalf of healthcare workers are asking that vaccines authorized for emergency use not be mandated among their staff until the clinical trial data is made fully available by Pfizer and Moderna or (as some groups are asking) until the vaccines have completed FDA approval. This is the balancing act of emergency authorization: at this point, the Pfizer vaccine has been tested on well over 40,000 people and no safety concerns have emerged, which is why it moved through the three phases of testing and why it is starting to get emergency authorization for use in the public in countries around the world. But, at the same time, the clinical trials (of at least this vaccine, I don’t know about more broadly) are supposed to last two years to study both the long-term efficacy of the vaccine and also keep an eye out for any potential long-term side effects. This delicate balance is discussed in a really thoughtful, nuanced and also understandable way by a Canadian researcher in this video:
▪️How long does immunity last?
▪️Does getting the vaccine mean you're no longer contagious?
▪️mRNA-based vaccine vs. non-mRNA?
▪️What if you have other health issues? pic.twitter.com/R8GpoECtah
— Natasha Fatah 🎂♐️ (@NatashaFatah) December 6, 2020
Trump, meanwhile, continues with his usual bullshit. On Tuesday, he signed an executive order that is, as CNN reports, “aimed at prioritizing the shipment of the coronavirus vaccine to Americans before other nations. But the scope of enforcement for the order is unclear.” Earlier this week, the New York Times reported on short-sightedness and ineptitude among the Trump administration earlier this year, when they refused to secure vaccine doses from Pfizer. But my question is — who will ensure low-income countries will have access to these vaccines? Disparities already exist in how the pharmaceutical industry approaches infectious diseases globally. For instance, despite malaria being a fatal disease that kills several hundreds of thousands of people annually and that has been around for centuries, a malaria vaccine is only just now entering clinical trials.
The end of the pandemic is in sight, but it is distant, and that distance greatly depends on who you are and where you live.
Natalie: Right now, Native communities are being left to fend for themselves. Ensuring that indigenous communities are prioritized to receive vaccines will be an early test of America’s vaccine distribution efforts.
Himani: One of the things that’s most upsetting about this is that, over the summer, Cheyenne River Sioux and Oglala Sioux implemented checkpoints on the roads leading into their reservations, and COVID-denier South Dakota governor Kristi Noem repeatedly threatened the tribes to remove the checkpoints, even drawing Donald Trump into the mix. My understanding is that the matter is still awaiting a court date in federal court. As has happened far, far too often in American history, native communities have been trying to protect themselves despite inadequate support from the federal government, and the U.S. government itself has impeded their ability to do so.
Natalie: It feels like this story wasn’t covered nearly enough this week given how egregious it is. This is “lock her up” taken to its logical conclusion, right…the authoritarian realization of that Trumpian chant. It’s beyond scary that this is happening.
Himani: As we’ve covered many, many times, the Trump administration has completely destroyed America’s immigration system. And here is the latest. These questions are despicable. Congressional officials represent the citizens in their jurisdictions and not all people who live there? And on a question about rights guaranteed to everyone living in the U.S. the following are missing from the list of correct answers: “the rights to counsel, due process, equal protection, and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment or unreasonable search and seizure.” But the right to bear arms sure is there (which is false). I don’t know what the process is, exactly, for getting the citizenship test updated, but I sure as shit hope this happens soon under the Biden administration.
Himani: As this was unfolding, I was waiting for the right article to include in this roundup, that included sufficient context on why the farmers are protesting. Until now, I hadn’t seen any Western-media discussing this issue in the context of large-scale agriculture companies, which is the underlying concern of the farmers: removing the market protections will allow big agriculture conglomerates to come in, take over farms and exploit farmers. We know how well that’s played out in the States, both for farmers themselves and environmentally. But I do wonder if this will shake the ruling BJP party’s strangle-hold on government. Until now, nothing has, and it really seems like nothing will. Sometimes I feel like in India we truly see the endpoint of people voting against their own interests in favor of maintaining bigoted social hierarchies.
Himani: This was an eye-opening read that shows the far-reaching implications of domestic gun policies. Scores of journalists have been killed in Mexico over the last two decades; more generally, there’s a massive problem of human rights abuses across the board committed by cartels, law enforcement and politicians. This article addresses a side of the issue that had never occurred to me: where do the cartels get their guns from? Many are smuggled across the U.S. border, but several are purchased legally by the army from the U.S., several European countries and Israel. These are military-grade weapons and, as activist John Lindsay-Poland put it: “[International weapons manufacturers] clearly know that weapons are going to states like Guerrero and Veracruz and Tamaulipas and Chihuahua that have long, well-documented histories of corruption and human rights abuses and impunity. In our view, they’re culpable.”
Natalie: This was interesting to me too because, I suppose, I’d never considered the international aspect. We hear this talked about all the time between states — how Illinois is impacted by the loose gun laws in Indiana — for example, but I’ve never thought about guns that travel overseas… which is just a big blindspot on my part.
Himani: Yet another war America should never have started. And, as Joshua Keating reports, the decision to remove troops is made in an entirely self-serving, partisan way with no consideration for the actual situation in Somalia. As Slate reports: “As with most of his foreign policy initiatives, Trump’s withdrawal announcement was poorly executed: It came with little apparent coordination with the Somali government; amid a triple threat of humanitarian crises including COVID-19, a locust outbreak, and severe flooding; and ahead of upcoming elections.”
This news serves as a reminder of the selfishness of America’s supposed “counter-terrorism” efforts from beginning to end. Because, meanwhile at the end of November, in a massive terrorist attack Boko Haram killed over a hundred civilians in Nigeria, and the tragedy has (to my knowledge at least), received no acknowledgement from the U.S. government.
Himani: Trade deals are just not things I really follow or understand, so this article was helpful in making sense of what the heck is going on (or not is, perhaps, more accurate) with Brexit. I welcome (and will also greatly appreciate) any additional insights in the comments from folks who have a better understanding of this situation.