Extra! Extra! is on a bit of a holiday schedule, so we’re here today to round out 2020 with the news from the last couple of weeks. In this week’s Extra! Extra! we cover judicial actions on LGBTQ+ rights in the U.K. and the U.S., the latest in Trump corruption scandals and pardons, updates on the COVID-19 pandemic and the recently passed stimulus package and more.
Himani: This ruling from a U.K. Court of Appeals strikes me as very similar to things we see coming out of the U.S. right. The idea that “free speech” must be protected at the expense of trans people’s humanity and dignity is simply disgusting. As the defendant Stephanie Hayden says of the ruling in an interview with Pink News: “[The ruling] encourages online trolls to abuse, dox and intimidate transgender persons” and “The higher judiciary have ordained that transgender people are legitimate targets.”
As a person who tries to keep up with what’s happening around the world, sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that trans rights are incredibly precarious in Europe. Coming from an American perspective, specifically, it’s far too easy to idolize European policies. But news like this serves as a reminder that there is a long way to go to ensure trans equality around the world.
Natalie: I love reading Mark Joseph Stern’s work at Slate because he always tempers this good news — which this undoubtedly is, despite the fact that it took far too long to achieve (Republicans are, frustratingly, never dissuaded by precedent) — with a healthy dose of skepticism about reading too much into what this decision foretells. As Stern rightly points out, “we do not yet know what this Supreme Court is capable of.” There clearly exists an appetite from Justices Alito and Thomas, in particular, to undo Obergefell but Box v. Henderson shows how difficult it’s going to be to unwind the rights afforded to gay couples under marriage equality.
Corrupt to the End
Natalie: I was not even remotely surprised by this news and I agree with former fixer Michael Cohen that had he kept his mouth shut, he’d likely be among the former Donald Trump associates receiving pardons from the outgoing president. But if there is a silver lining, it is what Cohen pointed out in a recent interview: Roger Stone, Paul Manafort and the rest of Trump’s associates can no longer assert their fifth amendment right against self-incrimination. They can be compelled to testify against the soon-to-be former president.
This strikes me as something that I suspect no one told the president about… someone so concerned with self-preservation certainly would not have agreed to this, knowing that it would put him at greater risk. I wonder what impact that might have on future pardons. Does the president give pardons to his kids if he knows they could be called to implicate him, since he can’t pardon himself?
Natalie: The Trump family’s grift that we already know about is appalling enough: funneling taxpayer money into their hotels and raising money, purportedly for their legal defense, that ultimately funnels back into their pockets. But it’ll take years, I suspect, for us to truly understand how Trump and his family have monetized the presidency for their benefit.
Two things struck me about this news: first, seeing Mike Pence’s nephew among the list of grifters. Over the last four years, it’s seemed like the Pences have kept their distance from the first family’s grifting — like the Pences were only there for their tax cuts and anti-abortion, anti-gay judges — and now we’re seeing signs that the Pences and Trumps are more tied together than we’d anticipated. The other interesting thing, to me, at least, is Lara Trump’s involvement. With the president’s daughter-in-law eyeing a 2022 run for the Senate in North Carolina (my home state), I’m interested to see if this news has any political implications.
Rachel: I’m often trying to do the math in my head about whether any given decision from this administration is better chalked up to being evil, incompetent, or both – in this case the combination of both things is pretty staggering! No one has had any doubt that the presidency has been functioning as a piggy bank smash for the entire Trump clan, but this is shockingly poorly disguised? There are teens doing a better job at drinking their parents’ liquor and refilling it with water as we speak!
Speaking of Corruption, Let’s Talk about the Police
Natalie: This piece, I think, is really a must-read…and really illustrates how much modern-day policing is rooted in the oppression of black folks…and, moreover, how almost impossible it is to reform our way out of that system.
Himani: What continues to stun me is that while union protections at large have been gutted in this country by every level and branch of government, police unions continue to hold so much power. That’s not surprising given the racial dynamics at play (i.e. conservatives are comfortable with police unions because they provide immunity to white people whereas other labor unions advocate for all workers, including people of color). But it is striking to read about these two things playing out at the same time, in parallel. A police union leader in this New York Times article is quoted saying: “I don’t understand why you wouldn’t remediate somebody,” while discussing arbitration for police officers that often result in officers remaining on the police force even after substantial transgressions and improper use of force. When does this same logic of “remediation” ever get applied to other workers?
Meanwhile, New Jersey’s attorney general Gurbir Grewal issued sweeping changes around use of force and reporting around use of force. Law enforcement was at the table with civil rights organizations in creating these new policies, but I am apprehensive of how the police unions will respond. And, New Jersey is fairly unique in that the attorney general is not publicly elected, which is what makes such changes even possible to consider in the first place. While I’m cautiously optimistic of change in NJ at least, I also believe, as Natalie says, that reform isn’t going to fix this.
Rachel: I’m often ambivalent about these kinds of footage releases – first, I think that they can reify emphasis on bodycams as a policy-based (and surveillance-based) way forward when in fact the underlying premise that police violence can be stemmed with more or different documentation of it is a bankrupt one; police violence and violence against Black people generally has been obsessively documented, often in admiring fashion, for generations, and that’s never lessened it (one thinks of photos of public lynchings as an example). Second, they’re obviously traumatizing and re-traumatizing for people to watch and hear discussed, and can refocus the public conversation on gory details of violence rather than the infrastructure which causes it. However, I also think about the oft-repeated idea that the proliferation of home televisions was what really shifted a tide of US sentiment against the Vietnam War, because for the first time citizens at home were seeing the reality of US imperialist violence and had to reckon with it; I think also about how blatantly and readily police departments lie about their actions, and the possibility for at least some people to reimagine their relationship to policing based on the clear disconnect between what police departments claim and what’s captured on these videos: “The hours of video, given exclusively to The Appeal by Williams, show police officers bragging about attacking protesters, targeting nonviolent demonstrators for violence and possible arrest, discussing arrest quotas and the use of cars as weapons, and multiple instances of excessive force and liberal use of pepper spray.” On the other hand (third hand?), I do unfortunately believe that for most people, their beliefs about these cultural institutions are based on personal narratives and aren’t really swayed by objective evidence in any direction, but only by personal experiences (i.e. when police violence touches someone personally); it’s just how our brains are. I am still forming my thoughts; would welcome others!
Himani: The pandemic continues to rage across the world, with case counts in the U.S. rising at an alarming rate. As we’ve seen time and again over the last nine months, prisons have been hotbeds of disease, with country after country reporting outbreaks and some their highest incidence rates among incarcerated people, specifically. This is equally true in the U.S. and particularly alarming in the States given the substantially large incarcerated population we have here compared to the rest of the world. This grim report from the Marshall Project quantifies just how bad the spread of COVID is in prisons across the U.S., where testing largely does not happen and incarcerated people are barely offered medical care. And yet, as vaccines have gotten approval and the roll out begins, the suggestion that incarcerated people should be among the earliest to receive vaccines has offended a great number of people — as if incarcerated people are somehow “less deserving” of not getting this horrible, horrible disease. As with most things in American politics, this line of thinking is incredibly short-sighted, given the movement between prisons and the outlying communities. As Emily Yang, an academic from Yale School of Medicine, told the reporters at the Marshall Project: “If we are going to end this pandemic—bring down infection rates, bring down death rates, bring down ICU occupancy rates—we have to address infection rates in correctional facilities.”
Natalie: I think you’re right about the indignation that so many folks are expressing about the incarcerated being prioritized for vaccines, Himani…as if getting COVID should be part of their sentence for whatever “transgression” they committed to end up in prison. Besides ignoring the humanity of those folks, it also appreciates the lives of the folks who work in our correctional facilities and the families and communities that they come back to after work.
Himani: This article shines a light on a largely neglected population that gets swept into the broad “Asian American” umbrella when we’re talking population statistics (or even policy, more generally), despite the fact that the histories and challenges facing Asians and Pacific Islanders vary substantially depending on heritage, race, religion and socioeconomic standing. Ignoring those differences has resulted in inadequate support and funding for Pacific Islanders, who, as per this Vox article at least, are experiencing the pandemic more like Native Americans than like other Asian American groups. As a result, community organizations for Pacific Islanders have stepped in to provide the necessary support and share knowledge within their communities.
Himani: The answer is simple, really: believe in science and social distance. But, as we’ve mentioned before, even in these two countries that have been more successful at keeping COVID-19 at bay, incarcerated people and migrant workers continue to be vulnerable.
Natalie: I read this and reflected on Justin Trudeau’s words when the vaccine had just been approved for use in Canada. He was widely praised for his willingness to donate Canada’s excess supplies to impoverished countries but this piece really puts into perspective how insufficient (and inefficient) that is.
Himani: What’s extraordinary, but unsurprising to me, is that this article is the first I’ve read to mention the motion at the World Trade Organization to restrict enforcement of intellectual property laws related to COVID-19 treatments and vaccines during the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, Western countries (including Canada) are opposing that motion. I haven’t seen American news sites covering this, and I can’t seem to find the outcome of the discussions that happened earlier this month (referenced in this article from Passage). At the end of the day, it’s not COVID, but rather capitalism that’s going to destroy us all.
Himani: The last few weeks there’s been a lot of news about a new variant of the SARS-CoV2 virus that appears to have some role in surging cases in the U.K. I found this article particularly useful in breaking down how common viral mutations are (very) and what scientists know so far about this particular mutation. There’s some evidence that this mutation spreads more easily than earlier variants of the virus, but no evidence that it is more deadly or makes patients sicker. It also appears that all the current vaccines will help build immunity against this mutation, so we’re good on that front.
Even Still, the Rich Get Richer
Himani: The first article from the Washington Post includes a particularly alarming graphic up top showing how many people were laid off in companies that were profitable this year. From the second article, there’s really only one sentence you need to read: “Bezos has accumulated so much added wealth over the last nine months that he could give every Amazon employee $105,000 and still be as rich as he was before the pandemic.” And, as we all know, Amazon warehouses are also hotbeds of disease. And, meanwhile, some of the PPP money was funneled (indirectly) in the same direction as, per NPR reporting, over $7.5 million dollars were distributed to private foundations.
I can’t say that any of this comes as a surprise, but I simply cannot fathom the extent of these people’s greed.
And What’s Going on with Stimulus Payments…?
Natalie: The $600 was not enough. Hell, the $2000 floated by the president (and agreed to by Democrats) remains woefully insufficient. It is, at best, hush money… not meant to actually help anyone but, instead, to quell the outcry. But even if the $600 was insufficient, this delay — he withheld his signature without making any effort to lobby Republican or Democratic members of Congress — caused irreparable harm to the American people, particularly those who are unemployed.
Today, both Sens. Loeffler and Perdue — both currently locked in competitive run-offs in Georgia — came out in support of the House bill that would increase the stimulus payment to $2000. But even with the majority of Senators supporting the effort, the likelihood that the bill approved by the House will come up for a vote in the Senate remains slim.
BREAKING: Mitch McConnell just blocked a proposal from Bernie Sanders for a vote on the House bill on direct payments for $2,000.
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) December 29, 2020
Himani: We all know Loeffler and Perdue are supporting the $2000 stimulus checks as talking points because of their upcoming races. In fact, as Congress was hashing out the bill in the first place, many analysts acknowledged that the only reason Mitch McConnell was coming to the negotiating table at all was because of those Senate races and wanting to secure his grip on the Senate.
Rachel: Natalie’s observation above that the extended benefits and relief funds are functionally hush money is dead on. Although the scope of this piece is theoretically limited to Michigan, it demonstrates the degree to which obvious logistical questions about how to actually meet the material needs of citizens haven’t been even thought. Which, in turn, reveals the degree to which meeting our basic needs on the national level is being treated symbolically, not as a real problem that needs practical solutions. “It’s a banana, Michael, what could it cost? Ten dollars?” indeed. Which of the multiple relief programs are people eligible for? How do they find out? How do you know if you’re approved for benefits? When will checks actually arrive, and how long will the gap be between the current relief programs and the new ones? Will people be able to pay rent? What are the options for people who are facing eviction or repossession and can’t tell their debtors to wait six weeks for them to be able to pay? All great questions that it appears the government has not particularly considered!
Himani: This article was written before the recently passed bill, but I can’t imagine (and I have not read anything to suggest) that the same problems won’t recur with the new round of stimulus payments, that people with undocumented family members (who, obviously, paid taxes because that’s how the government knows about them) will not receive stimulus payments, even if they themselves are citizens or permanent residents.
The Senate Is Still At Stake: Georgia’s Run Off Election Next Week
Natalie: My answer to the question posed by this headline is: dear God, I hope so. It’s not just that I want to ensure a Democratic majority in the Senate — though, of course, I do — but that I want to get rid of two ridiculously corrupt senators. Both Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue have spent their time in the Senate working to enrich themselves, at their constituents’ expense, and it’s deplorable.
Both races are essentially tied — though there’s limited polling available and even if there was, polling for run-offs is notoriously unreliable — but turnout numbers suggest there’s cause for optimism. With Nov. 3 having shown that it’s possible for Democrats to win in Georgia, non-voters are turning out: 80K Georgians have voted in runoff who didn’t vote in November and those voters skew younger and they are more likely to be voters of color. Fingers crossed!
They've tried to suppress us.
They've tried to silence us.
But no more.
The tables are turning.
Every voice counts in the GA Runoff Election, & we will be louder than ever before ✊🏿
Vote by Jan. 5th❗
— Fair Count (@faircount) December 29, 2020
A Little International and Foreign Policy News
Natalie: I feel like this is one of the most underreported stories of the year…as if the president’s failure to doing anything about it means that this hack wasn’t significant.
Himani: There are many, many atrocious things that America has done, especially in recent times. Guantánamo is extremely high on my list. In the wake of everything that has happened this year — the pandemic, the George Floyd protests — I don’t think anyone is foolish enough to attempt making the claim that race-based discrimination isn’t alive and well in America. But, for me, Guantánamo will serve as the eternal reminder of how far Americans will go in dehumanizing other people. And in the age of Trump, it also serves as a reminder that the problem isn’t limited to Trump and his supporters; it’s the Republican party and blue-dog Democrats as a whole. Closing Guantánamo won’t solve any of the underlying problems (I can’t imagine that any of the currently incarcerated people will ever get trials), but it’s a small step, and one that I worry Biden is too spineless to take. It’s ironic, because these last few weeks we’ve repeatedly surpassed the number of lives lost on 9/11 multiple times thanks to the Republican party’s unwillingness to deal with COVID. But it’s much easier to round up a bunch of brown people and torture them into false confessions than it is to tax the rich and shut down the economy to save the lives of your own citizens, I guess.
Himani: It was a Christmas miracle! (Sorry, I just had to make that joke…) But in any case, as I’ve said before, trade deals are not my forte, and I found this explainer really helpful in understanding the agreement that the U.K. and the E.U. finally reached.
Himani: I remember reading about this activist when she was arrested. It’s incredibly disheartening that she’s been sentenced. As human rights organizations around the world have said, this proves how hollow Saudi Arabia’s move towards human rights reform really are.
Himani: When the Arab spring uprisings began a decade ago, there was great hope that the movements across the Middle East and North Africa would result in more equality societies. This poll from the Guardian and YouGov indicates that things have actually gone in the opposite direction instead, both politically and economically. I don’t have much in the way of insight to offer here, but it’s interesting to look at different, recent social movements and their outcomes. On the one hand, we have the horrible civil wars of Syria and Yemen, we have the mass demonstrations and political corruption in Lebanon; on the other, we have constitutional referendum in Chile. There’s hope to be found, for sure, but again and again, around the world we see that it is a long, hard path to equality.
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