The 2018 Election: A Day as a Poll Worker

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Image Credit: Casey Roberts/Unsplash

It is pitch black outside when I wake up. At 5:00 am, it is too early for this night owl to function, and yet I must, since I have to be at the polls in just over an hour to set up. It’s election day: November 6, 2018. I stumble in my groggy stupor to the bathroom, and realize I don’t have time to wash my hair, so me and my bed head will have to do. As we hop into the car, my dad, asks if I’ve brought any candy or snacks. I say that I’ve brought an apple for him. My dad just responds, “Maybe I’ll fast today.” I text our poll inspector that we’re running ten minutes late as we breeze through the dark, winding streets of our hometown of Lafayette and then the neighboring town of Moraga, where we’ll be volunteering as poll workers together. In a fortunate stroke, we got placed at the same polling location, so we carpool and prepare for a day of civic duty and father-daughter bonding.

We stroll into a school library with its colorful maps and computers and middle-grade novels, which has been repurposed today for arguably the most vital of our democratic processes: election day. We greet our fellow poll workers and get to work assembling one of the red-white-blue voting booths while our fellow workers ready the ballot scanning device, set up the check-in stations and display ballot translation guides in Spanish, Mandarin, Korean and other languages. Although I speak Spanish, I’m not sure how many of the other poll workers here are multilingual. I tack a voter’s bill of rights to the staid blue library door.

Two or three eager voters line up to vote early, and we advise them to patiently wait until the fast-approaching 7 am poll opening time. About 6:58, the poll workers assemble, right hands raised, to take the poll worker’s oath. I don’t remember the words, but the solemn nature of the process makes me feel like I’m back in elementary school reciting the pledge of allegiance. And then we take our designated places. Three of us (including me) check voter registration in alphabetical order by last name, one table each for A-F, G-O, and P-Z. One person staffs the eligibility review station where a clerk helps individuals who need provisional ballots if their name doesn’t appear on the voter rolls.  Another man sits at the final station where he hands out ballots in a dark green envelope to the voter, so they can fill out those ovals in privacy. Another clerk shuffles around supplies, and our last clerk stands by the ballot scanning device, waiting to assist people. And then, our inspector yells, “Polls open!”

I make a mental note every time I see a young twenty-something person or eighteen-year-old strolling up to the polls, but there are not nearly enough. A few, like the black first-time teenage voter with an easy-going smile, stand out from the pack of forty and fifty and sixty-something-year-olds. Other children, barely tall enough to see over the registration table, stare wide-eyed around them as their parents cast their ballots. They can’t vote, but we give ‘em the perks of an ‘I Voted’ sticker anyway. Their treat for coming to the polls and (mostly) not crying. Several voters appear to be English-language learners, and it warms my heart to see these older individuals (mostly Asian but also a few Middle Eastern and Hispanic individuals) show up to the polls this largely white suburb.

I check-in a young man and his mother on the voter rolls. The young man, possibly an individual with a learning disability, sits on the floor reading a library book as his mother completes the ballot on his behalf. But when I talk about it with my father afterwards, I realize it’s much the same as an individual who has a physical handicap authorizing someone else to fill out their ballot on their behalf. Another voter scoffs when the poll worker to my left, an older retired woman, tells her that we don’t require proof of ID in California. “I could say I was anyone!” the female voter says, astonished, as she returns her driver’s license to her wallet. Another blonde woman with an accent, possibly European, grows angry as we direct her to fill out a provisional ballot because she is a vote-by-mail voter and her name does not appear on the voter rolls. ”We should be making it easier [to vote],” she retorts. I’m generally inclined to agree with her, but I don’t say this aloud because that’s not my place. We make no talk of voter requirements, politics or party affiliation here.

Meanwhile, the scanner gets jammed as an impatient voter too hastily feeds her ballots into the scanner, and the waiting line grows long. One woman checking-in at my table wonders if she should come back later to vote. But, fortunately, the machines recovers and the tiny dings that indicate the machine’s functioning, continue unimpeded. My nametag falls off at some point during the day, but I’m too busy to replace it. A few poll watchers—or concerned citizens monitoring the electoral process—swing by, including a woman who wonders why our duplicate voter rosters are not presently available for public viewing. We’re still updating the duplicate voter rosters and checking off who has come to the polls to vote, so she says she’ll return later, which she does, coughing profusely as she runs her fingers through the roster.

The steady stream of voters throughout the day keeps us busy, but there are moments of respite, which allow us poll workers to interact with each other like normal human beings. The inspector running our polling place is a bearded fellow around my age, but among the clerks (AKA the rest of us poll workers), I’m the only person there under the age of 40, though I don’t realize this until my fellow poll workers comment on how young I am. Multiple times. My fellow poll workers are mostly retirees. Including me, there are three women. The rest are men. We get along, crack a few jokes and cover for each other during bathroom breaks. During the moments of downtime, we chat about the brisk morning weather and one poll worker’s easily excited Siberian husky who can’t be let off leash in public. Our inspector brings around a pastel-pink box filled with donuts, and another poll worker gives me hell for eating the one with sprinkles.

Although this is my first time working the polls, the other poll workers keep remarking what a great turnout this has been compared to previous midterms. And slowly, but surely, we fill out not one, but two blue bags bulging with vote-by-mail and provisional ballots. And the ticker on the ballot scanning device (where people voting in-person at the polls scan their ballots) creeps from 70 to 140 to 200 to 350 voters and beyond as people schlep straight from the office to the polls in the evening hours. But then the sun sets (too early—curse you, daylight savings time) and the swell of voters ebbs to a mere trickle. We run out of “I Voted” stickers, much to the chagrin of the dwindling voters. Two or three last stragglers complete their provisional ballots and we begin to take down the signage and close up shop. Then at the stroke of eight, the inspector yells, “Polls…are…closed!”

We begin to tally up the number of voters who have signed in on the voter rolls, which feels like a high-stakes grade-school arithmetic exercise, with the fate of democracy in our hands. Sort of. When we compare our count with the automatic results of the ballot scanning device, we’re only off by one signature/vote, which the inspector tells me isn’t bad. I tack the election results from the ballot scanning device, listed on a seemingly endless paper—like a CVS receipt—to the library’s front door as the inspector places the results of the days election in the all-important red security bag, which the county will use to report the night’s results to the media. The other clerks remove the ballots from the black scanning device and seal them up in lime-green boxes. I assist in packing and sorting the hundreds of provisional ballots and vote-by-mail (VBM) ballots into their own clear, plastic bags. Then we round everything into truck of their inspector’s car as we say our farewells in the now-empty school parking lot.

The inspector needs a clerk to accompany him to drop off the results and the completed ballot, which I do, while my dad follows in his car. And then the day is done. The election is over. At home, the headache of anticipating the results awaits. But as tiring as the day was, it was probably less stress-inducing than watching the results flicker in on CNN or Fox or your cable news station of choice. Would I do it again? I’d be open to it. I’m moving to LA in a few months, and if I do work the polls again there, I hope to see more diversity on all fronts—both in voters and in the poll workers. But for now, here’s a little slice of what it’s like from the other side of the registration table. For those who showed up to the polls or canvassed to turn out the vote: thank you. And please: thank your poll worker.

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I’m a Patriot: Here’s What That Means to Me (Plus Expectations for 2018)

Hello blogosphere!

It’s been far too long since I’ve posted. But let’s be real: most of you (except for my devoted parents) probably haven’t noted my absence or ardently pined for my hot takes on media criticism, pop culture and general life in Trumplandia. Journalism grad school life at NYU keeps me busy, and when I’m not procrastinating on one assignment, I’m drowning in thesis hell and/or commuting on the Staten Island ferry for said thesis (long story — hopefully I can share part of the thesis with you all in the future…once it gets done. UGH). True story: the Staten of Liberty gets REAL boring when you’ve seen it more than a dozen times on the ferry. And don’t even get me started about the incessant waves of tourists trying to snap the perfect selfie…

But 2018 is here, and I’m all about turning over a new leaf, putting the pessimism behind me, and changing the world one article at a time.

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Okay, well, maybe some of that is a bit lofty. Here are some more realistic PERSONAL EXPECTATIONS (not goals, ugh, that word alone makes me feel like I’m going on a diet):

1) I promise to blog at least once more this semester! Totally doable, though not as often as I would like.

2) Eat healthier! Maybe lift those weights I bought once a week. Get sick less! Eat more fruit.

3) Survive this semester intact with completed thesis in hand come May. (Not really an expectation so much as a requirement of my degree, but I’ll stack this up here as a formality).

4) Publish 1-2 other longform nonfiction pieces that have been sitting in the ‘to-pitch’ pile. Editors: expect a flurry of pitches coming your way!

5) Post more photos on Instagram (just not selfies). Take better photos. Learn how to use my off-camera flash.

6) Shut up the voices in my head that won’t stop chattering and get some creative fiction published (or read by someone other than my dad). I still hope to continue working as a freelance journalist after my program, but I’m realizing more and more that the fever dreams, random shower thoughts and journaling frenzying won’t stop unless I put onto the page some of the the fictional broohaha that I can’t really tap into as a journalist/nonfiction writer. And plus, I might as well capitalize on my love of film and TV and instead of binge-watching Netflix on Sundays in my ugly, off-gray sweatpants, actually do something about it!

So will I move to LA tomorrow and become a wannabe screenwriter on Sunset Boulevard? Probably not quite that soon, but I’m trending more in that direction. So, my expectation is: apply to at least 1-2 screenwriting fellowships/contests, and finish and revise a screenplay. And complete a first draft of a novel and/or get a short story published. It may seem like I’m shooting for the moon here, but hey, I’m twenty-five, which is the new sixteen. And when I get that first screenplay or novel done, I will throw myself the sweet-sixteen birthday party I never had. Except it will be replete with champagne and other delightful bubblies I could not have legally consumed as a teenager.

7) Do more random acts of kindness. The world could do with more generosity. And call my parents and brother more often (hey guys! I still love you kthxbye).

POLITICAL/BIG WORLD REFLECTIONS: Personal woes aside, it’s been a pretty heavy start to 2018. The Golden Globes happened! With fewer people of color represented than I would have liked. I’m still reeling from the fact that Issa Rae did not win best actress for the black female-centric comedy Insecure, though I loved Sterling K. Brown winning for his role in the heartwrenching drama This is Us. But sexual harrassment was front and center, with many actors and actresses sporting Time’s Up pins and calling out a culture of sexual violence.

Though many of the men weirdly omitted any mention of sexual harrassment in their acceptances (not totally surprised), leaving the emotional labor of leading the #TimesUp movement to women like Natalie Portman, who boldly challenged the Globes’ failure to nominate any female directors. And Oprah! Oprah gave a rousing speech that led many to speculate she should be the next 2020 Democratic candidate. Ehh, as much as I adore Oprah, not sure I love this trend of celebrity candidates…can someone call the DNC and tell them to get their act together?

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In other news: online outlet Babe.net published an explosive account earlier in January. In the story, anonymous 23-year-old “Grace” accused Aziz Ansari of sexual misconduct on a date that they went on last year. Journalist Katie Way detailed that story in incisive — perhaps almost too literary(?)–detail. (Babe.net is loosely considered journalism, but its ethically questionable writing of Grace’s story leads me to debate its as a news source…) This story prompted every single writer and Internet commenter to simultaneously decry Grace’s story as both sexual assault and just a ‘bad date.’

My take: it’s somewhere in between the horrific acts of Harvey Weinstein and unwanted catcalls (both of which are unacceptable, by the way, just on opposite ends of the sexual violence spectrum). I think that there needs to be room in the #MeToo movement to encompass these gray areas where women’s consent is not necessarily respected but falls short of the legal definition of sexual assault. And more discussion of enthusiastic consent (YES MEANS YES x 1000), how men should pay more attention to the cues of their partners, and how women can better empower themselves in these kind of situations.

And also, more responsible reporting from journalistic outlets that can generate nuanced conversations on this issue. I’m looking at you, Babe.net. But I am glad that this piece has begun to surface those necessary discussions. Hopefully an outspoken ‘feminist’ like Ansari will treat future female partners with the respect that they deserve. You’d think a guy who wrote an entire book entitled Modern Romance would know more about enthusiastic consent, but I digress…

Other not-so-great news: The government also shut down on the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration. What an auspicious way to commemorate the first year in office! I was an intern in DC during the last government shutdown in 2013, and let me tell you, it was not a great time for those few weeks. It was a big media and national feeding frenzy. It’s so indicative of the very different times we live in that a government shutdown nowadays barely registers on the political/national consciousness (except for, hey, countless government workers and soldiers who won’t be getting paid, but that’s another story).

And DACA STILL hasn’t been renewed (where’s that Dream Act, Congress?), leaving hundreds of thousands of young immigrants in the lurch. Temporary Protected Status (TPS) has been revoked for many other immigrants, leaving countless Haitians and El Savadorans without legal status — effectively de-legalizing them after they’ve lived for years, even decades, in the U.S.

But on a more positive note: Yesterday, millions of women marched from Colorado Springs to New York in honor of another anniversary: the inaugural Women’s March. Last year, I wrote a long piece about the women’s march and my participation in it. I was fresh into my journalistic career, and despite the fear of what may unfold in 2017, I was buoyed by the resilience I saw around me.

This year, I opted not to join the march, and instead partake in quiet reflection of where the country stands (and me). Over the years, I’ve had many, many discussions of what it means to be an American. My parents left their home country — virtually, everything they knew and everyone they loved — and came to this country. They sacrificed a lot. The U.S since become their home. And mine, too. I don’t want to flee to Canada or settle down and marry a European boo (though I’d certainly love to travel more — eyeing those cheap Spirit Airlines tickets!). I want to stay, no matter how tough things get. Because this is my country. And it’s the country of countless Americans, many of whom were not born here, but contribute to its lifeblood and economy all the same. #HeretoStay

Yesterday, I realized, that in my own way, I am a PATRIOT. Not in the mainstream sense of the word, which prizes insularity, isolationism and American exceptionalism. Nor in the more militaristic sense of the word, which brings to mind the muscular, macho heroes of Independence Day and Die Hard. And yet, I’m a patriot all the same. Whether in my previous duties as a human rights activist or in my current line of work as a reporter-writer, I’ve always striven to better my country. To know its ugly history of oppression and modern-day reality of oppression. To work to bring it closer into existence with the words enshrined in the Declaration of Independence (amendment by me), while understanding the both privileges I hold and the challenges that face me:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

And here are the things I’ll do as a PATRIOT to make that happen:

1) Continue to engage with individuals I may personally disagree with, and truly see from their point-of-view (and represent it accurately on the page). This is essential not only in my work as a journalist, but also as a human being residing in a very polarized country.

2) Immerse myself in worlds other than the NYC literary milieu (it’s very easy to get sucked up in this bubble).

3) Donate to organizations working to aid struggling and under-served communities. For folks looking for suggestions, my former employer, The Leadership Conference is a great one. The ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center are also top-notch. But also consider donating to local charities, which oftentimes don’t do the hard work but don’t receive the kind of funding that their national counterparts do. A highly-respected nonprofit in the San Francisco Bay Area is the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, which provides legal and educational services to immigrants in need. I used to volunteer there, and can vouch that they’re lovely people who do essential work for their community.

4) Write both nonfiction and fiction that builds bridges between different communities, promotes greater equity and diverse representation, and elevates the voices of indigenous, disabled, female and people of color.

5) Watch lesser-known TV and films — especially ones that increase awareness of key human rights concerns. On my watch-list is the documentary On Her Shoulders about Yazidi activist Nadia Murad, who suffered horrific abuse at the hands of ISIS militants and now speaks out on behalf of her people.

And the latest adaption of White Fang! Okay, fewer relevant social justice issues there, but my roommates recently adopted a dog, and I cried reading Jack London’s book, so this is on the list.

6) In order to better understand my own country, it’s good to have some distance from my usual stomping ground. So I’d like to travel to one more new state or country before the year is up. Louisiana? Japan? Peru? North Dakota?

What are your expectations for 2018? Did you partake in the Women’s March? What’s on your reading/binge-watching/writing list for the upcoming year? Thoughts on the current media landscape? Do share!

With much love,

Tara

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Maspeth: a community in uproar over a homeless shelter exposes issues with New York City policies

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[Image credit: Gothamist.com]

Note: I this article wrote some months ago regarding the dicey situation surrounding a rising homeless population in the city of New York, beleaguered state and city housing policies, and a homeless shelter that raised the ire of a community in Queens. Although I didn’t get around to publishing it at the time, I thoroughly enjoyed reporting on this story, and so I thought I would share it on this blog. For a more recent update on what’s going on in with the shelter in Maspeth, click here.

December 13, 2016

By Tara Yarlagadda

It’s a dreary day; rain floods the sidewalks and slides down the neon signs along Queens Boulevard. Yet, the gloomy weather does nothing to dampen the spirited cries of middle-class residents in Maspeth, Queens.

A heated community board meeting is underway at Our Lady of Hope Catholic Academy in Middle Village – a residential neighborhood bordering Maspeth, Queens. The topic of debate: a proposed homeless shelter that nearly made the town of Maspeth lose its mind, and in the process, underscored a city-wide crisis with policy failures at all levels of government.

According to Lauren Gray, Senior Advisor for Communication for the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS), the DHS notified Council Member Elizabeth Crowley in May regarding plans to convert the newly constructed Holiday Inn Express Queens–Maspeth into a homeless shelter for adult families. Council Member Crowley is the elected representative on the New York City Council for Community Board 5, which includes Maspeth.

Despite vociferous complaints from Maspeth residents, Gray insists that there has been ample community engagement in the process: “The Department of Homeless Services also hosted two community forums, which were attended by Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks to personally listen to community concerns and respond to questions.”

But those breadcrumbs were not enough to satisfy Maspeth. Residents protested in a nightly vigil at the Holiday Inn Express and even once outside of the home of Commissioner Banks, who heads the DHS. Protestors wielded posters with slogans like “Solutions not shelters” and images of Banks with the phrase: “Fire the liar.” For residents of Maspeth, this might as well be the controversy of the century.

The Juniper Park Civic Association in Middle Village criticizes Council Member Crowley for not being adequately supportive of the residents protesting the shelter. Manuel Caruana is a member of the Executive Board of the Juniper Park Civic Association. Of Crowley, Caruana says: She’s a liar. She should have been thrown out of office years ago. …This is her modus operandi. I’ve seen her do it over and over again. She’ll cut a deal and then she’ll make believe she’s fighting for you while her deal is cut.”

Still, Crowley’s Communications Director, Maggie Hayes, insists that Crowley has supported Maspeth’s opposition to the homeless shelter from the very beginning. Moreover, she states: “Elizabeth remains compassionate to the homeless…and is more concerned on creating a stable, productive environment to help them get back on their feet…”

Despite her tenuous support, Council Member Crowley, along with other elected officials, filed a lawsuit in August in the New York State Supreme Court, alleging that the proposed shelter violated New York City Administrative Code 21-124b. The code states that “no homeless shelter shall be established which does not provide…cooking facilities.” The Holiday Inn does not have cooking facilities.

The defendants, the city of New York and Commissioner Banks, quickly launched a counterattack, mounting a defense that only adult families will be placed in the Holiday Inn shelter, and cooking facilities are only required in shelters with families with children.

In addition to the lawsuit, concerns have erupted over the shelter potentially becoming what New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer referred to at the community board meeting as a “roach hotel.” The Comptroller’s office conducted a city audit in 2015 of homeless shelters for families with children, finding that conditions in many homeless shelters across the city were deplorable due to lax security and an utter lack of regulation on the part of the city.

Ironically, both homeless advocates and residents disapprove of the use of hotels for homeless shelters. Giselle Routhier is Policy Director for the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy organization and the court-appointed monitor of the single adult shelter system in New York. Routhier says that although the city has made use of hotels for shelters, hotels are “…definitely not the most optimal location,” stating that there are generally issues with providing services – such as mental health and employment assistance – in these facilities.

Caruano insists that his opposition to the shelter stems not from a hatred of homeless individuals, but rather, the moral quandary of housing families in a single hotel room, which he decries as “unconscionable.”

So, the ethics of housing individuals in hotels is indeed a dicey matter that raises broader policy questions for a city struggling to find sufficient space to shelter its homeless population. However, the actual conflict in Maspeth might be more primal: outsiders versus insiders.

While chatting about the people who might reside in the shelter, Caruana says something that belies his prior goodwill: “There’s no public transportation. There’s no way these people are going to go out and get jobs. There’s nothing to do but for them to wander through the streets of Maspeth causing problems. People don’t know who they are – this is a very tight-knit community. They see a stranger walking around the neighborhood, they’re going to get scared. Why are you scaring the community this way? There’s no need for that.”

In that sense, what’s going on in Maspeth is a time-old dilemma: residents that want to be left in peace, and outside forces that are determined to break their idyllic bubble for the greater good.

There are currently no homeless shelters in Community Board 5, where Maspeth is located, but the de Blasio administration is trying to change that, perhaps futilely so.

According to a press release by the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) in September, the de Blasio administration has “implemented an unprecedented array of programs designed to prevent homelessness and move adults and children out of shelter,” thereby preventing 7,000 New Yorkers from becoming homeless.

Among these new policies is a borough-based approach, in which homeless individuals and families should be given temporary shelter in their home boroughs, so as to better foster community ties and ease the transition into permanent housing.

As a result, Mayor de Blasio has made pronounced efforts to establish more homeless shelters in Queens, including the proposed shelter in Maspeth. Many Queens locals take issue with this new policy. Karla Leone, a resident of Jackson Heights, speaks to the increase in shelters:

“We already have two shelters and going on a third [in Jackson Heights]. It’s terrible. They’re like one hotel that my dad used to work in. They fired my dad, they fired a whole bunch of workers, and they opened a homeless shelter…Not only does it devalue the houses, but it makes our neighborhood dangerous.”

In spite of the glowing statistics published by the DHS, the situation is pretty bleak. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, as of August 2016, there were more than 60,000 homeless individuals in the shelter system. This is up from 38,000 individuals in 2010 – a shocking increase in just six years.

The average length of stay for a family with children also increased over the past decade to 412 days in August. And it seems the city is largely unable to meet the growing demands on the shelter system. During the week of September 5, according to a document filed by the city in the lawsuit, the vacancy rate in the city shelter system was below zero.

Yet, why is there such a growing demand for homeless shelter services? According to Caruana, the current situation is a result of New York State’s right to shelter policies, which require New York to provide emergency shelter to homeless individuals.

Caruana alleges that this has caused thousands from across the country to flock to New York, overwhelming the city’s homeless shelters: He says: “New York taxpayers are carrying the burden for all the states in this country that are sending their homeless to us. Prior administrations gave them a bus ticket back to where they came from. [Mayor de Blasio] is welcoming them…I tell you what: my grandson could do a better job.”

It’s a common myth, and one that the Coalition for the Homeless roundly disputes. According to the Coalition, less than one-half of one percent of all families placed in the New York City shelter system is from out-of-town. Many of them are from neighboring Long Island or New Jersey.

Routhier offers a more nuanced explanation, rooted in city policies and state and federal disinvestment from affordable housing over the past decade. It starts with then-Mayor Bloomberg’s slashing of priority affordable housing for the homeless in 2005, and becomes more pronounced when the state cuts funding for the Advantage program – which provides subsidies for up to two years to assist people in renting housing – in 2011. Routhier adds: “…. there was essentially no way for families to move out of the shelter system. A huge spike in homelessness followed.”

There are some positives: Routhier lauds the de Blasio administration for reinstating priority access for homeless individuals to section 8 public housing, which provides assistance to low-income families to rent in the private housing market. She also praises the administration for introducing “city-initiated periods of rent subsidies that have thus far been absent” among previous administration’s homeless policies.

The city could allocate a larger portion of public housing for homeless individuals. Yet the blame doesn’t rest solely on the city’s shoulders, said Routhier: “Both the state and federal [government] also need to step up” in providing resources for homeless services and affordable housing. According to Routhier, two billion dollars allocated for affordable housing have been left unused in Governor Cuomo’s budget.

In this citywide housing crisis, advocates on both sides pressure the city for the need to transition people out of the shelter system and into permanent, more affordable housing. The culmination of these policies ties back to Maspeth.

Ultimately, the initial legal fight over the proposed shelter has seemingly ended in a stalemate with a press statement from Commissioner Banks in October: “The owner of the Maspeth Holiday Inn refused to allow the city to convert the hotel into a shelter. Instead, the hotel owner agreed to rent rooms to help keep homeless New Yorkers off the street, and the city has done so.”

But wrinkles continued to develop as reports emerge that the proposed homeless shelter is under attack by a second lawsuit – this time by the holding company that owns the land on which the Holiday Inn Express sits – which could hinder the city’s efforts to house homeless individuals there.

Still, without conversion into a formal homeless shelter, the social services that such a hotel could provide to the homeless individuals that it houses is undoubtedly limited. And so, no one wins – the administration, Maspeth, and especially not the homeless.

A New Era, a New Resistance: Reflections on the Inauguration & the Women’s March on Washington, From Me to You

Gloom and doom. For many Washingtonians, this was the unpleasant sentiment that had descended on their capital, much like the clouds that had begun to settle above the city. I had arrived the day before the inauguration of President Trump, hoping to catch up with a few friends before the Women’s March on Washington. But I wasn’t prepared for how the city had changed since I left it last May — what seems like an eternity ago. At that time, it seemed all but assured that we would soon have the first female president of the United States sitting in the Oval Office. How very quickly the tables turn.

Many old friends and colleagues had already hightailed it out of DC, hoping to escape the wave of Trump fanfare that had besieged the city. For those that remained, I asked friends how they planned to spend the inauguration, given that most of them were decidedly not fans of the new administration. Most planned to hunker down as if a tornado was descending on the capital, turning their cozy pads into bunkers that they’d use to ride out the inauguration with the comfort of food and booze. If much of liberal America was in mourning, nowhere was this more evident than in DC.

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Attendees of the inauguration gathered on the South Lawn of the White House.

I thought I would spend part of the day wishing Obama a farewell in front of the White House on his last full day in office. I wasn’t exactly President Obama’s biggest fan when it came to some policies like mass deportation and going after journalists under the Espionage Act, and thought that he could have done a better job of rallying Congress to get its act together, but I do think that ultimately, he did some great things that benefited some of the most vulnerable people in our country, and did it with dignity and aplomb — a measure of reserve that is unlikely in the next four years given Trump’s tendency for bombastic comments. For that, Obama deserves a strong measure of gratitude.

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A display posted inside the window of store in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, DC.

And yet, I didn’t get that opportunity. ‘Make America Great Again’ had hit the capital in anticipation of the inauguration with a sea of crimson MAGA hats, ‘Welcome President Trump’ signs, and misogynistic anti-Hillary buttons peddled by street vendors. Obama’s presence had already been vanquished from the capital. Most inaugural attendees were respectful (apart from a few misplaced yells of ‘Good riddance Obama’), but it was still a still strange spectacle to behold in a city that I once though I knew very well. Wealthy and elite Republicans — the kind who find MAGA hats tacky but attending inaugural balls glorious — muttered ‘rednecks’ at the newcomers who came to Washington on motorbikes and in jeans to welcome their new president.

And then, now former-President Obama was whisked away to St. Andrews Air Force base, and President Trump was sworn in. Much has already been said about the inauguration, from Trump’s post-apocalyptic speech to the minimal number of attendees compared to the throngs that attended both of Obama’s inaugurations — a number which Trump later decried as spin doctoring on the part of the media — to the administration’s wiping of civil rights pages on whitehouse.gov to the anarchists that shattered windows to former President George W. Bush’s inability to handle a poncho.

All in all though, by Trump standards, the number of bellicose comments made were kept to an expected dozen or so, and his first day got underway with as little hubbub as could be expected for such an unorthodox and polarizing president. I watched Trump being sworn in on Spanish television while eating pupusas at a restaurant where Salvadorian music was blaring over loudspeakers and hardly anyone spoke English. It was a glorious contradiction of everything Donald Trump has claimed to stand for, and the dramatic irony was almost too strong for me to handle.

It wasn’t all bad, those first few days. I caught up with friends and sought comfort in Georgetown cupcakes, a talk with fabulous females authors at the beloved Politics & Prose bookstore and a solidarity beer at Comet Ping Pong (the place which sadly became a site of unwarranted infamy when a man followed a trail of fake news to the restaurant, armed with a gun). These were just a few of my old haunts when I lived in DC and nostalgia was a wonderful coping mechanism as we entered the new, uncertain era.

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But then, it happened. 1.21.17: the Women’s March on Washington. Overnight, the city had transformed from crimson red caps to vivid pink hats in the shape of cats. It was a brilliant symbolic effort to take back a term that the-then presidential nominee Trump had made vulgar — to say the least — through a now-infamous Hollywood Access video.

The phrase ‘pussy grabs back’ was boldly playing out not only through these iconic knit hats, but also in the signs that plastered the streets of DC. The signs ran the gamut of emotions, from virulent rage to punderful slogans to empowering feminist iconography. The signs also reflected the diversity of issues and interests of women all over the country: climate change, immigrants’ rights, criminal justice reform, you name it. Intersectionality was in full speed at the march, and it was a welcome sight to behold.

My sign of choice? “Journalists rights are human rights.” I’ll confess that I just found it in a set of pre-made signs that some of my Amnesty International friends had made, but I knew the sign was meant for me. Photojournalists shouted in solidarity as I passed by them during the march, and I never felt more at home in defending the need for freedom of the press. Some might say that a journalist should not participate in a march of this scale. I couldn’t disagree more. Journalism is under attack, even though it is needed more than ever, and female journalists particularly so under this new era. We need look no further than what happened to Megyn Kelly to offer proof of that danger. It’s great to have activists on board in solidarity, but if members of the press — especially female journalists — don’t stand up for our rights, no one will.

I had gathered with friends at the start of the march not far from the National Mall — along with the 500,000 some estimated other women and men from across the country that had gathered in the nation’s capital. We waited with bated breath for the speeches to commence, but we didn’t have to wait long. America Ferrera. Gloria Steinem. Janelle Monae. The mothers of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and other young black men lost too soon to police brutality. California Senator Kamala Harris. Representative Maxine Waters. Angela Davis. Michael Moore. Scarlet Johannson. And the march’s main co-organizers Linda Sarsour, Tameka Mallory, and Carmen Perez — along with countless other activists, organizers and celebrities who helped make the march possible — were some of the fierce ladies who spoke at this historic gathering. They agitated, they united, they inspired us. All of us.

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My favorite speaker though might have been young Sophie Cruz, who was wise beyond her years when she boldly got up on stage with her family to encourage — in both English and Spanish — children to stay strong in these frightening and uncertain times for immigrants: “Fight with love, faith and courage so our families won’t be destroyed…I am here to tell the children, please do not be afraid. We are not alone.”

Was the rally perfect? No, there were some pretty big logistical issues, the primary one being that since there was no designated lane for emergency vehicles, we had to part like Moses and the Red Sea every single time an ambulance or police car passed through the crowd, pressing up against each other like sardines. But then again, the march’s undoing was in its own success. The main organizers had been hoping for 250,000 attendees, and got more than twice as many participants as expected. That’s a very, very good problem to have.

But eventually, after three hours of robust speeches and performances and exhausted cries of ‘Start the March! Start the March,’ we did just that. We took off in all directions, and I got separated from my friends at some point along the way, but we women converged on downtown DC like no other force in recent history, chanting down Constitution Avenue, gathering in unity circles on the National Mall, and finally, culminating in peaceful protests outside of the White House. The message to Donald Trump was loud, clear and beautiful. And despite the enormous number of participants, not a single person was arrested. That’s an incredible testament to the power of peaceful protest, and the wonderful cooperation of DC law enforcement. I was never more proud of DC than I was that day.

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And it wasn’t just DC. 250,000 showed up in Chicago, between 500,000-750,000 in Los Angeles, and countless thousands more in sister cities across the nation. In total, an estimated 1 in 100 Americans showed up to march across the U.S., and hundreds of thousands more across the globe in Paris, London, Mexico City, Delhi, and more. And with a small contingent in Antarctica, the women’s march came to every single continent on the world. Now that is empowering.

But, in Donald Trump’s belittling of the march the very next day (though perhaps recognizing his mistake, he quickly turned around and expressed his support for the right to peacefully protest…though how genuine that subsequent tweet was, I cannot say), I was reminded of the very important work that needs to be done to turn the goodwill and camaraderie of the march into concrete action.

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For some, that next step is running for elected office as a local school board or city council member. For me, it’s rolling up my sleeves as a reporter and tackling hard-hitting issues to inform the public at a time when the administration openly lampoons and derides the media. Journalists will need to be more ethical, more representative, more accurate, and more bold than ever before. It’s certainly not going to be easy for any of us, especially in this climate, but there’s no time like the present to get to work.

In sum: we are loud, we are nasty and we will not go quietly into the night.

 

 

 

 

And Here We Are Now: Looking Back on the Media’s Coverage of the 2016 Election with Michael Calderone

Editor’s note: With less than ten days to go until the inauguration of President Donald Trump, I thought that I would share an interview that I did with Michael Calderone, Senior Media Reporter for The Huffington Post, looking back on the media’s – oftentimes deeply conflicted – role in the 2016 election. You can read some of Calderone’s articles here, or find him on Twitter @mlcalderone

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The Smith restaurant, where I met with Michael Calderone, Senior Media Reporter for The Huffington Post. Photo courtesy of thesmithrestaurant.com

I’m huffing and puffing as I rush over to The Smith, a restaurant in the East Village. I’ve just committed one of the rookie mistakes of a journalist, which is arriving five minutes late to a pre-scheduled meeting – a meeting in which you only have an hour to spare because the interviewee has to jet to another rendezvous. I attempt to fix my tousled hair, hoping I don’t look like a train wreck, before spotting Michael Calderone casually waving at me through the glass doors opening into the restaurant.

Calderone is the Senior Media Reporter for The Huffington Post, and before that, he worked at the New York Observer, Politico, and Yahoo News. “Media reporting” is a broad term that covers everything from the robber barons of media like Jeff Bezos to the press’ coverage of trending topics, namely, politics. He’s also been honored with the National Press Club’s Arthur Rowse Award for Press Criticism for writing about the media’s treatment of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We had met a few weeks beforehand at a conference hosted by the New York Press Club, where he participated in a panel on the media’s coverage of the 2016 election. He was just a friendly reporter and NYU adjunct professor and I, a confused NYU graduate student eager to make contacts in the media world. Then, the election – otherwise known as the Apocalypse of 2016 – happened, and the media world threw itself into a frenzy. And here we are now.

Like many other journalists, I was reeling after the election, and in need of answers. How did the media get it so completely, arrogantly, wrong? New York Times column “The Upshot” reported at 10:20 p.m. on election night that Hillary Clinton had an 85% chance of winning. The Huffington Post practically laughed in Nate Silver’s face, even though his calculations were rather conservative, predicting that Trump had a 35% chance of winning. For all of its incessant, 24-7 election coverage, the media had failed to anticipate the very real possibility of Donald Trump becoming president, had failed to cover him with this in mind, and had failed to take him seriously. I was hoping Calderone might have some thoughts on what went wrong and the future of journalism after this divisive election.

Calderone sports a relaxed look, a boyish grin, and a pair of dark, round librarian style glasses. He’s cheerful, despite my tardiness. He dons a grey sports jacket and a button-down shirt with no tie – a traditional look for many male journalists in the city.

For all his coverage of the intersection of media and politics, Calderone started off on a different beat: real estate. He was an intern at the New York Observer – before it came under the ownership of Donald Trump’s famous son-in-law, Jared Kushner. At the time, the Observer was known for its in-depth forthright coverage of politics, real estate and New York society at-large. Calderone describes it as: “Really covering the power elites of Manhattan in a weekly chronicle. The late Peter Kaplan, who used to be an editor there, used to describe it [as] almost a nineteenth century novel, where you’re covering these powerful figures.”

There aren’t many media reporters now, and there were even fewer in the mid-2000s when Calderone began writing about the industry for New York Observer’s storied “Off the Record” column. Calderone was the first media reporter at Politico, Yahoo News and The Huffington Post. He says as we receive our meals: “One of the upsides of being the first media reporter was that you can’t really screw it up.”

We dive right into the election madness with Calderone’s forays at the Observer. Despite president-elect Trump’s deep chagrin towards the press now, at the time, Calderone wryly notes, Trump was more than cozy with the media: “He was – in my view – the most accessible famous person in New York City. He called me back numerous times at the New York Observer – I don’t think he had any idea who I was.” For Calderone, Trump is an “interesting figure” that “simultaneously attacks the media and also craves the adulation and the coverage that comes along with being a media and entertainment star.”

But was it more than ego – was it also creative genius? Did Donald Trump manipulate the media through his self-adulation, thereby scoring himself some sweet coverage during the election? Calderone characterizes it as more of a “symbiotic relationship” between Trump and the media, but says that Trump took advantage of the media’s desire for titillating stories, calling in to stations three or four times a day from Trump Tower.

In turn, the media would generate a dozen roundtable discussions about the latest outlandish thing that he’d said. Calderone puts it bluntly: “…[Trump] recognized early on that he could dominate the media conversation from his apartment.”

The news media used to be reluctant to allow presidential candidates to conduct interviews from their home – until Donald Trump came along. Calderone is careful to note that these same news outlets also extended the courtesy to Hillary Clinton, but she was never interested in having such a direct line of communication with the media. He continues: “And so he got significantly more attention than anyone on the Republican field, and that helped elevate him throughout the primaries.”

So that’s strike one against the media: its excessive coverage of Donald Trump. Okay, but with a confused look on my face, I ask, don’t we already knew all of this? Isn’t there more to it? Oh, there is. Calderone is more than happy to give me his take between forkfuls of an egg-white omelet.

“If you want to put him on air a lot, that’s fine, but you need to treat him like a presidential candidate.”

Over clashing forks and knives, we talk about how the media for far too long enabled Donald Trump’s dog-and-pony show – all the while treating his candidacy like some big joke. It wasn’t until later, when it became clear that Donald Trump was a frontrunner in the Republican primary, that reporters realized the error of their ways. They started producing more serious coverage, doing exposés in The New York Times about what building a wall along the U.S-Mexico border might entail, and fact-checked him more than possibly any other presidential candidate to-date.

And yet, the media persisted in the idea that there was no way that this man could possibly ascend to the highest office in the land, given his track record of crass, misogynistic, and racist statements that sounded abhorrent to many Americans. A lack of imagination – or childish blindness, perhaps – in part, doomed the press.

But does part of the blindness stem from the much-maligned “liberal” bubbles that the media and Trump supporters have pointed out again and again? It was supposedly from their newsrooms in New York and DC that members of the mainstream media mocked, and thus, fundamentally failed to understand the Rust Belt Trump supporter. Wiping his mouth with a napkin, Calderone shakes his head, firmly concluding that it would be wrong to say that the media didn’t try to cover the Trump voter, given that news outlets sent countless staffers to report on his rallies and supporters.

But he does concede that there is a risk in “sending a reporter out to Appalachia for three days, and them coming back with some report that looks as if they’re a stranger in a strange land, sort of they’re visiting a foreign country, and what are these weird customs? And that could be a problem with not having reporters based in some of these areas, or not having the experience of growing up there …”

Part of the problem, Calderone says as he lowers his fork, stems from the shuttering of local newspapers across the country, leaving large swathes of the country without solid reporters from those areas. Back in the good old days, newbie reporters would write for a local newspaper as a way to work their way up the ladder. But now, journalists come straight out of J-school and go work for The New York Times, thus furthering the divide between mainstream media in the major cities and the rest of the country.

The last, and perhaps most important issue, that Calderone brings up as we scrape off the last bits of egg from our plates is the “normalizing” of Trump’s views “as if they’re acceptable policies” – such as the proposed Muslim ban – in the pursuit of journalistic principles like neutrality and fairness. For Calderone, that was a huge failure in reporting – something that outlets like The Huffington Post repudiated, unlike many legacy news organizations. He says animatedly: “…there’s this idea that…by saying that [it] isn’t an acceptable position, somehow you’re being partisan. My view is – that’s not partisan. We always said that – The Huffington Post always said that. ”

But too often, not enough legacy news organizations did the same, according to Calderone. The reality was that this election was like no other before it. The news media just didn’t grasp how they couldn’t cover Trump’s campaign as politics as usual. And here we are now, with the general public’s trust in the media shattered.

As Trump appoints Steve Bannon, formerly the head of Breitbart News – a haven for the growing alt-right movement – as his chief advisor; ditches the protective press pool that normally accompanies president-elects to grab a steak dinner with his family; and berates journalists in official meetings for doing their jobs, what does the future of press freedom look like? Pretty bleak, according to Calderone. In addition to having questionable actors like Bannon “whispering in the president’s ear” there are significant First Amendment concerns for journalists:

“…what’s being taken for granted by journalists is not law – it’s precedent. It requires a White House that is committed to First Amendment principles to believe that the press has a reason to be in the White House…and if Donald Trump has shown throughout the campaign, he hasn’t respected that role at all.”

His parting words do nothing to soothe my fretful mind: “I think journalists have a lot to fear over the next four years.”

As we get the bill and reach for our credit cards, I realize that there’s something that bothers me. For all his scorn for the media coverage writ-large, Calderone tiptoes around any direct criticism of The Huffington Post. I want to push back on this – weren’t they also guilty of many of the media’s failings?

After all, The Huffington Post announced in 2015 that it would no longer display articles covering Donald Trump in the political section, but rather, in its entertainment coverage. Their reasoning? “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow. We won’t take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.”

Ouch. I wonder if the editors at The Huffington Post are regretting that statement now.

But alas, Calderone has to head to another meeting at The Huffington Post’s office. Drat. Saved by the bell.

Looking back on the conversation afterwards, I wonder if The Huffington Post will modify its editor’s note at the bottom of its Trump articles, given that Trump is no longer a buffoonish nominee that could be dismissed, but the person who would soon be in charge of running the most powerful country in the world?

For context: early in 2016, The Huffington Post began adding a not-so-subtle anti-Trump disclaimer at the bottom of all of its coverage of the then Republican nominee. It was a bold move by The Huffington Post, one that surely did not improve its blacklisted status in the eyes of Trump and his supporters. The postscript read:

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liarrampant xenophoberacistmisogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

As I was writing this article, I looked up Calderone’s latest piece on Trump. Sure enough: the editor’s note had completely vanished. And here we are now.

“Hillbilly Elegy:” A Book Review. Does J.D. Vance succeed in explaining the Rust Belt to the rest of America?

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Photo credit: Goodreads.com

Rating: 3/5 stars

Like many folks in the past few weeks, I stumbled upon J.D. Vance’s nonfiction book and memoir Hillbilly Elegy on a list of ‘best books to understand the 2016 election’ written likely by The New York Times or another similarly eminent publication. In reading it, I hoped to glean an unfiltered, insightful perspective of someone who is from and still holds a deep emotional attachment to his home in Appalachia.

By that metric, the book succeeded — with a few disappointing caveats. Vance gives a honest personal account of everything from witnessing his mother’s drug abuse to the screaming fights of his neighbors to the enduring love of his Mamaw (grandma) that gave him a pathway to great success as a Yale Law student. (Mamaw is awesome and by far the best character in the book, by the way. I would have read this book just to hear her swear like a sailor; gruffly, yet lovingly push Vance to become educated and achieve something more than a hillbilly life; and threaten those who dared hurt her family.)  The book offers both a deeply unflattering and at times, heartwarming look at the people that he calls his friends and family as an insight more broadly into the culture of white working-class Appalachia.

The writing isn’t earth-shattering by any means, but then again, I didn’t open it up expecting literary flash, but rather, interesting substance. As a minor critique: the book can get a little repetitive at times in its storytelling. But I think I was more disappointed in the content, in part because I was hoping for something more than memoir. Had the book combined his powerful story with compelling academic analysis, it might have been more well-rounded and meaningful than a simple narrative account.

The book wasn’t written with the intent to explain the ‘working class Trump voter’ to the liberal masses — even though it’s since been interpreted by much of the mainstream media to be just that — but Vance did seek to shed light on the culture of Appalachia, of how people who live in the Rust Belt behave and why, even if their behavior seems to run counter to their best interests. I would say he succeeded somewhat in making us more aware of and empathetic towards working class Appalachia. However, the end result is often a one-note picture of people who often act in horrible ways to those around them, entrapped by the harshness of their circumstances and being unwilling to rise above them. Still, it’s hard to dismiss, because it is Vance’s own lived narrative.

True, Vance does offer some answers to questions like ‘how do we help ameliorate the situation in Appalachia?’ with some no-nonsense talk against condescending paternalism — which white-collar America is all-too prone to offer up in discussions of blue collar workers — and failed, if well-intentioned, government policies to help the poor. And yet, he offers no tangible solutions as alternatives to the government policies that he bitterly derides.

For example: I almost laughed at his chiding of politicians who set forth legislation to curb payday lending — predatory loans offered at exorbitantly high-interest rates to primarily low-income folks that often leaves them trapped in spiraling debt. He justifies his support of a horrible practice like this by citing how payday loans helped him get over a short-term economic windfall without any long-term debt. This is a case where anecdotal evidence slips dangerously into a generalization that I would strongly wager is not true for many working class individuals — something which Vance tends to do throughout the book.

The biggest critique though: At the end of the book, you’re often left with the feeling of despair; this is just the way it is in this part of the country, and absent the love and support of key familial figures that Vance was lucky to have in his life, most young working class people in Appalachia have little chance of making it out of there. And that’s a tough, maybe overly simplistic pill to swallow for most readers — especially for a policy wonk like me fresh out of Washington, DC — even though it’s the primary takeaway from the book.

What You Missed While the U.S Media Slept-April/May 2014

In light of the massive media hubbub and eye-rolling over the Donald Sterling saga, a dear friend suggested that it might be time for a second installment of “What You Missed While the U.S Media Slept.” I couldn’t agree more.  Enjoy–feedback is welcome, as well any other news that both I and the U.S media overlooked.

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(DISCLAIMER:That’s not to say that these news items haven’t been covered at all in the U.S media–far from it. But they don’t dominate the headlines as they shouldNor do I want to make light of the Donald Sterling matter. Racism is offensive, and obviously, there are serious issues when a man like  Sterling owns a team comprised of largely African American players. But when this old man’s face is on the homepage of every single major news outlet while 234 Nigerian girls remained in captivity–then that sends a very strong message about press in the U.S. And not in a good way.)

1. Migrant Deaths on U.S Soil and DNA Tests to the Rescue-CNN

It’s the invisible issue, one that even the immigration reform debate has chosen to neglect: migrant deaths on the U.S-Mexico border. The journey through Mexico and the scathing Arizona desert–one of the most common routes for undocumented immigrants to reach the U.S–is perilous, and over 2,000 migrants’ corpses have been found dead over the past four years, many lacking identification.  Regardless of your stance on undocumented immigrants, it would be hard for anyone to deny that allowing migrants to perish on U.S soil is a grave injustice. The price of immigration is just too high–in all respects.

While the past cannot be changed and these migrants cannot be brought back from the dead, some brave individuals in the U.S are trying to bring closure to the victims’ loved ones back in Central America and Mexico by identifying deceased migrants through the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), headed by Mercedes Doretti.

 

Paula Ivette Martinez waits for news of her brother and sister's deaths after submitting her DNA to the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team.  She is one of more than 1,000 people involved in the project. Image credit: Carlos Perez, CNN

Paula Ivette Martinez waits for news of her brother and sister’s deaths after submitting her DNA to the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team.
She is one of more than 1,000 people involved in the project.
Image credit: Carlos Perez, CNN

The deadliest trip in America? 

2. Violence in Copacabana (Rio de Janieiro) with less than a month until the World Cup-The Telegraph

Brazil, the site of the upcoming World Cup, is a country of extremes: extreme beauty and rapid development, but immense poverty and rampant inequality as well.

The poor are largely marginalized subjected to police brutality, as was the case when protests recently erupted in a favela or slum in Copacabana, Rio De Janeiro in response to the police killing of TV dancer Douglas Rafael da Silva Pereira (the police mistook him for a drug dealer). Police gunned down the area and set Copacabana under lockdown, instilling fear in the hearts of residents.

However, this is hardly a new issue for most of Rio’s poor. Excessive policing and brutality in the favelas of Copacabana has been a reality of the poor for their entire lives. And in less than two months, thousands of tourists will be flocking to hotels in Copacabana to watch the World Cup. Does this situation call into question the judgment of those who allowed Brazil to host the World Cup? Maybe, but if Russia can be allowed to host the Sochi Olympics, then clearly, human rights don’t matter when it comes to hosting multibillion dollar sporting events–just the pocketbook and a blank check.

A Brazilian Special Force police officer takes position during a deadly riot in Copacabana.  Image Credit: The Telegraph

A Brazilian Special Force police officer takes position during a deadly riot in Copacabana.
Image Credit: The Telegraph

Copacabana in lockdown after violence breaks out in favela close to tourist beach

3. Situation in Egypt Worsens as Hundreds Sent to Be Slaughtered-New York Times

The spotlight’s been off Egypt since the tumultuous coup and fall of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood last year, but unrest continues to spiral out of control all the same. In perhaps one of the most outrageous and horrific court decisions in recent history, an Egyptian judge mass-sentenced 529 defendants to death for the murder of a police officer, allegedly in anger over the the toppling of Egypt’s Islamist president. That’s a little excessive.

Nine months ago, when the military declared a coup and threw out the legitimately elected President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood–a political party largely comprised of Islamist religious ideologues–many liberals around the world were applauding the move, believing that the Muslim Brotherhood would drag Egypt back into the 19th century with its views on Islam. Fast forward to the present-day: Not so many people are cheering now, and for good reason.

A relative of one of the convicted Egyptians faints outside a courthouse in Matay, Minya Province.  Image credit: Agence France-Presse, Getty Images

A relative of one of the convicted Egyptians faints outside a courthouse in Matay, Minya Province.
Image credit: Agence France-Presse, Getty Images

Hundreds of Egyptians Sentenced to Die in Killing of a Police Officer

4. Things Are Getting Real in Thailand: Popular Protests, Military Coups, and All That Jazz-Al Jazeera

The dispute in Thailand is hardly new if you’ve been paying attention at all to the international media. Sadly, Thailand has often taken a backseat to more immediate matters of urgent concern in the popular media. Like the fact that Jennifer Lawrence puked at a party after the Oscars. Celebrities getting drunk and behaving badly? Noooo, that’s waaayy more important than political unrest in Thailand. As long as you can still get Pad Thai and Sriracha sauce readily available at your favorite Thai restaurant, then who really cares about the country itself? But I digress.

A bottle of Sriracha sauce, a Thai condiment created by Vietnamese American David Tran and beloved by spicy food lovers. Image credit: Joshua Bousel, Seriouseats.com

A bottle of Sriracha sauce, a Thai condiment created by Vietnamese American David Tran and beloved by spicy food lovers.
Image credit: Joshua Bousel, Seriouseats.com

Thailand has been wracked with popular protests between the Red Shirts, or rural supporters of the democratically elected government, and the Yellow Shirts, urban elite supporters of the Thai monarch that want to depose the democratically elected government because they believe it’s corrupted by various foreign influences, including the exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. This has gone on for months, with some bloodshed and a lotta turmoil, including the courts kicking Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra out of power less than two weeks ago. For the past few months, the military had been strangely silent. For a country that’s had more military coups than I have fingers on both hands, that should’ve been a good sign. But it wasn’t.

On Tuesday, May 20, the military proclaimed martial law to bring order to the streets of Bangkok, but firmly maintained that it was not, in fact, declaring a coup. Less than 48 hours later on Thursday, May 22, after the military failed to bring about a consensus between the two opposing parties in government and end the political unrest, the military stated that it had a change of heart and was, in fact, detaining leaders of the current government, suspending the Constitution, censoring the press, and indeed declaring a coup.

In the words of Ron Burgundy:

Thai military leaders dissolve Senate

Also, does the situation in Thailand ring a bell to anyone? If you thought of Egypt, then ding-ding! You are correct. Yet for some reason, the U.S has reacted very differently to the coup in Thailand versus the political situation in Egypt. Read more about why in Adam Taylor’s great article in the Washington Post.

5.  Shabab Rebels Unleash Terror into the Heart of Somalia-Reuters

In the latest spate of terrorist violence to wrack Africa, Al Shabaab militants laid siege to the Somalian Parliament building in the capital of Mogadishu on May 24 and killed 10 people in the bomb and gun assault.

Sadly, this is not the first round of such violence to be perpetrated by Al Shabaab. The Al-Qaeda-linked Al Shabaab took credit for at least 13 deaths between February and April of this year, and has long ruled (AKA terrorized) large swathes of the country in the absence of a strong central government in Somalia since the toppling of dictator Mohamed Sid Barre more than two decades ago.

Somali government soldiers take their positions during a clash with Al Shabaab militants outside the Parliament buildings in the capital Mogadishu. Image credit: REUTERS/Omar Faruk

Somali government soldiers take their positions during a clash with Al Shabaab militants outside the Parliament buildings in the capital Mogadishu. Image credit: REUTERS/Omar Faruk

Al-Shabab attacks Somali Parliament, at least 10 dead

6. Vietnam and China Clash as Protestors Take to the Streets-Los Angeles Times

Vietnam and China have long feuded over waters in the South China Sea, with both parties claiming the maritime territory as their own and the battle in the high seas becoming symbolically linked to the national identity of the two countries.

However, things have quickly heated up over the past month, as Vietnamese citizens have had enough of China’s bullying, particularly after China brazenly moved an oil rig into the disputed seas. However, irate Vietnamese individuals unfortunately took to the streets against innocent Chinese living abroad in Vietnam, setting establishments on fire and singling out Chinese communities with threats and actual use of violence, injuring and killing several people. Over 200 businesses in Vietnam suffered severe losses to their companies in the biggest protests in recent history in this tightly-controlled communist nation.

The Chinese government has already evacuated thousands of Chinese individuals living in Vietnam back to China for safety purposes. Sad times for Vietnam and China. President Obama has talked to great length about the importance of the Asia Pacific, particularly Southeast Asia, to the U.S, yet it seems the U.S media hasn’t really picked up on that–or doesn’t really care.

 

Anti-China protestors set fire to more than a dozen factories in Vietnam. Image credit: VNExpress / AFP/Getty Images

Anti-China protestors set fire to more than a dozen factories in Vietnam.
Image credit: VNExpress / AFP/Getty Images

Vietnam mobs torch foreign factories in anti-China protests

7. Teen Eagle Huntress from Mongolia out-Katnisses Katniss Everdeen-BBC

On a more light-hearted note: How awesome is 13-year-old Ashol Pan, a 13-year-old Mongolian huntress who trains golden eagles to swoop on prey? Ashol is among the last of a dying breed of falconers (rumored to be only 400 in total), and one of the few–perhaps only–girls to practice the trade in the modern day. A hunt can last for days on horseback in minus-40 degrees C weather; a team of riders hunt together, charging at an animal once its been spotted to lure it into the open, after which, they release the show-stopper: the golden eagle.

Lately, Katniss Everdeen, the main protagonist from The Hunger Games, has become the iconic ‘tough teen’ role model for many young girls around the world, but I think we might have a real-life contender for Katniss Everdeen in Ashol Pan. Like Katniss, she’s learning to support her family through hunting–albeit, through an avian intermediary–and she seems to be tough as nails, though with a warm smile on her face. Impressive archery skills or a deadly golden eagle? That’s a tough one.

13-year-old Ashol Pan, an eagle huntress from Mongolia, uses a golden eagle to hunt for foxes and hares. Image Credit: Asher Svidensky, taken from BBC

13-year-old Ashol Pan, an eagle huntress from Mongolia, uses a golden eagle to hunt for foxes and hares.
Image Credit: Asher Svidensky, taken from BBC

A 13 Year-Old Eagle Huntress in Mongolia