Category Archives: Current Events

Gossip and News, Strange Bedfellows

(Jason Merritt/FilmMagic)

On a recent episode of the Longform podcast, the hosts heaped praised on Jodi Kantor and her reporting for the bombshell Harvey Weinstein exposé. The episode was released the same day the New York Times published a story reported by Kantor, Melena Ryzik, and Cara Buckley in which five women accuse comedian Louis C.K. of sexual harassment and assault, a story that had existed in a similar whisper network among female performers for years.

The praise for Kantor, and for the investigations by the Times in general, reminded some listeners of Longform’s 2016 interview with Leah Finnegan, in which she spoke about her experience as an editor at Gawker. Host Aaron Lammer questioned Finnegan about a post published by Defamer in May of 2015, about Louis C.K.’s predatory behavior.

“Part of the reason I went to Gawker was that spirit of wanting to fuck shit up, being into gossip, wanting to talk about things people didn’t necessarily want to talk about,” Finnegan tells Lammer. She cites their stories about Bill Cosby, Louis C.K., and Fred Armisen — “recurring rumors about … men who do gross things” — as examples.

There are rumors that maybe have truth to them, but the Times would not report on them, because they can’t really nail it down. But Gawker will report on them. I think that that spirit is really important, saying what no one else will say, just so it’s out there.

Lammer responds with an oddly irrelevant bit of whataboutism. “Couldn’t you also say that Donald Trump is also saying what no one else will say?” He criticizes the Gawker post as “weird and thin, even for an allegation,” describing it as “some guy said his friend was in a backstage … with Louis C.K. and he whipped out his dick and asked her to do something with it.”

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Brit Bennett Reflects on Living the Past Year in “Trump Time”

380887 34: A young African American woman listens during a civil rights rally at the Lincoln Memorial August 28, 1963 in Washington. (Photo by National Archive/Newsmakers)

On the night Trump was elected president, I sat at home alone feeling winded; just hours earlier, I’d been at a polling site in Bed Stuy where black and brown people, many of them women, smiled and waved and high-fived each other, certain that we’d soon be celebrating a national milestone just like we had eight years before.

Writer Brit Bennett, whose debut novel The Mothers will be adapted for film with actress Kerry Washington as producer, reflects on her experience of reality in the past year since President Trump’s election in a poignant personal essay for Vogue. Back to back scandals, large and small explosions of racial animus, and the whiplash-like event of Trump following the nation’s first black president have “compressed time,” Bennett writes, and have made the author, and her mother, who grew up in Jim Crow-era Louisiana, question the notion of progress.

In Trump Time, the clock moves backward. The feeling that time itself is reversing might be the most unsettling aspect of a most unsettling year. What else is Make America Great Again but a promise to re-create the past? Through his campaign slogan, Trump seizes the emotional power of nostalgia, conjuring a glorious national history and offering it as an alternative to an uncertain future. He creates a fantasy for his base of white Americans but a threat for many others. After all, in what version of the past was America ever great for my family? “The good ol’ days?” my mother always says. “The good ol’ days for who?”

Last September, I traveled with a publicist who is also black to a warehouse in Westminster, Maryland, in order to sign books. As we left Baltimore and headed toward a city that is, according to the latest census, 87 percent white, we began to see red Make America Great Again signs on lawn after lawn. “When I see those signs, I feel the same way as when I see a Confederate flag,” I said. She understood what I meant—that visceral sense of dread. Both symbols represent a racialized nostalgia that, to me, only evokes fear.

I did not realize then that, within the year, those two symbols would collapse into each other.

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The True Story of Refugees in an American High School

Helen Thorpe | The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom | November 2017 | 14 minutes (3,444 words)

On the first day of school—it was going to be a ninety-degree scorcher—Eddie Williams jogged up the four stone steps at the main entrance to South High School in Denver, Colorado, half an hour before the first bell rang, eager to meet his new students. The teacher was a tall man, six foot four inches in his socks. He was thirty-eight years old, but could have passed for twenty-eight, and he was wearing a short-sleeved purple South High polo shirt. All the teachers had put on purple shirts, that being the school color, so that the students could easily see whom they should turn to if they had a question about how to find a particular classroom, or how to read the confusing schedules they carried. Mr. Williams usually avoided short-sleeved shirts, because they revealed the dark blue tattoo that circled one of his biceps, and he feared his students might misinterpret the inked designs as macabre, given their backgrounds. He worked diligently to communicate in all sorts of ways that he was a person they could trust.

Mr. Williams had inherited his Anglo father’s rangy height and propensity to freckle, along with his Latina mother’s dark eyes and hair. Fluent in both Spanish and English, he was the sort of teacher who devoted an enormous portion of his kindness, vitality, and intellect to his students. Most of the classrooms in the school were crowded with noisy, chattering teenagers. That morning, however, as he looked around his room, Mr. Williams saw many empty chairs and only seven students. The teenagers assigned to him wore shut-door expressions on their faces. Nobody in the room was talking, not even to one another. The teacher had expected. His room always got off to a quiet start.

“Welcome to newcomer class!” he said, in a deliberately warm tone of voice. “My name is Mr. Williams. What is your name? Where are you from?” Read more…

L.A.’s Underground Museum is a Vital Hub of Contemporary Black Culture

Guests attend the John Legend performance at The Underground Museum for Belvedere DARKNESS AND LIGHT listening event on November 16, 2016. (Photo by Araya Diaz/Getty Images for Columbia Records)

In a feature for W, editor and writer Diane Solway talks about how the Underground Museum, an arts space in a nondescript building in Central Los Angeles founded in 2012 by figurative painter Noah Davis and his wife, sculptor Karon Davis, became a vital convening point for creatives, culture workers, and audiences interested in ideas of black excellence.

These days, guided by Karon, Kahlil, and other family members, the Underground Museum is an anomaly in this era of starchitect-designed private museums and foundations: a modest, black-family-run art collective whose convening power is likely the envy of every cultural institution in the country. Beyoncé, the artist David Hammons, and the actress and activist Amandla Stenberg have all been spotted in its purple-themed garden; John Legend and Solange Knowles have launched albums there; and the director Raoul Peck visited to screen his acclaimed James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Equal parts art gallery, hangout space, film club, and speakeasy, the UM, as it’s affectionately known, focuses on black excellence, not struggle, though it’s been nimble enough to address recent racial turmoil by creating a forum for talks by Angela Davis and by Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrisse Cullors. Jenkins likens the museum to “a salon you would have found during the Harlem Renaissance,” in the 1920s and ’30s. “There’s something coming out of that place that is so radical in its potential that you can feel it,” concurs the L.A.-based sculptor Thomas Houseago. “And it draws a mix of people that I don’t find anywhere else in the world. As a white artist, it’s not like, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ It’s, ‘Great, you’re here! More hands.’ ”

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The Town Where Trump Can Do No Wrong

Donald Trump arrives to speak at a campaign rally in Johnstown, Pa. in October 2016. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

It’s been one year since Donald Trump was elected president and he hasn’t fulfilled many of his campaign promises, like building a wall or repealing Obamacare. For Politico, Michael Kruse visited a town in western Pennsylvania where voters helped win Trump the presidency and learned that many of them don’t care about what he has or hasn’t been able to achieve in office — they will support him no matter what. Here’s Kruse talking with Maggie Frear, a retired nurse:

He said he was going to bring back the steel mills.

“You’re never going to get those steel mills back,” she said.

“But he said he was going to,” I said.

“Yeah, but how’s he going to bring them back?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “but it’s what he said, last year, and people voted for him because of it.”

“They always say they want to bring the steel mills back,” Frear said, “but they’re going to have to do a lot of work to bring the steel mills back.”

He hasn’t built the wall yet, either. “I don’t care about his wall,” said Frear, 76. “I mean, if he gets his wall—I don’t give a shit, you know? But he has a good idea: Keep ’em out.”

He also hasn’t repealed Obamacare. “That’s Congress,” she said.

And the drug scourge here continues unabated. “And it’s not going to improve for a long time,” she said, “until people learn, which they won’t.”

“But I like him,” Frear reiterated. “Because he does what he says.”

What might account for this kind of devotion? As Kruse puts it, “his supporters here, it turns out, are energized by his bombast and his animus more than any actual accomplishments.” They feel angry, and identify themselves in Trump’s anger.

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In the Wake of Weinstein and #MeToo, Why Does R. Kelly Still Have an Audience?

(Rex Features via AP Images)

At Rolling Stone, reporter Jason Newman recently revealed another round of sexual assault and abuse allegations against R. Kelly. The allegations are from one of Kelly’s former girlfriends, disc jockey Kitti Jones, who dated the singer from 2011 to 2013.

It was June 2011, and R. Kelly had just performed to a frenetic crowd at the Verizon Theatre outside Dallas, Texas. It had been nearly two decades since the singer’s raunchy lyrics and honeyed voice turned him into a R&B superstar and sex symbol. But despite multiple controversies over his alleged sexual relationships with underage girls, his still-dedicated fan base sent his latest album — the throwback soul LP Love Letter ­— to number six on the Billboard 200…

[Jones had] been into Kelly since she was a teen in the early 1990s, when she’d hide in her room with his music to escape her mother’s tumultuous romantic relationships. She’d buy every magazine he was in and, upon the release of his 1993 solo debut, 12 Play, took a limo to a third-row seat at her first Kelly show. She’d seen him in concert seven times since. “He was my Brad Pitt,” she says.

The story of Jones’s relationship with Kelly includes food deprivation, forced sex acts, and a dormitory-style, cult-like atmosphere with his other girlfriends. It echoes Buzzfeed’s July story, “R. Kelly is Holding Women Against their Will in a Cult, Parents Told Police,” reported by Jim DeRogatis, who has followed the cloud of allegations surrounding the singer since before his 2008 trial for child pornography.

Jones says she went to Rolling Stone to support the women mentioned in the Buzzfeed report, some of whom are younger than 21 and are, according to one woman’s parents “brainwashed” by the singer.

Reports of Kelly’s illicit, predatory behavior go back to his marriage to singer Aaliyah in 1994 when she was 15 years old and he was 28. (Vibe published an apparent marriage certificate in its December issue that year). Over the years I’ve personally heard from Chicagoans with memories of Kelly traipsing the halls of local high schools looking to befriend teenage girls. Much less clear than Kelly’s gleeful exploitation of women and girls — he calls himself the “Pied Piper” of R&B — is how and why he gets to keep an audience and a job.

Rolling Stone’s article came out just a week after accounts of producer Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behavior were first published in The New York Times and The New Yorker. The public responded with shock, outrage, and then action. Weinstein was fired from the company he co-founded, expelled from the Motion Picture Academy, and could face criminal charges. Some of his accusers, like Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow, are powerful Hollywood players, but regular women also stepped forward on social media to tell their own stories of sexual violence, using the hashtag #metoo.

Accusers of other powerful, predatory men soon followed: actor Kevin Spacey, Amazon Studios executive Roy Price, NPR’s senior vice president for news Michael Oreskes, former New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier, and ex-New Republic publisher Hamilton Fish.

In a tough news cycle, the courage of survivors heartened me. I’ve been the victim of sexual violence more than once. I know many women who can say the same, but often, it’s only behind closed doors, in voices thin with internalized shame that we speak of these things if we ever do at all. Also heartening, of course, were the consequences forced on many of the predators — the public shaming of them, the loss of deals, relationships, credibility.

Weinstein’s victims, that we know of, were mostly white — with the exception of Lupita Nyong’o, who published a detailed account of her experience with the producer in the New York Times. Bim Adewunmi, a critic I admire, wrote that black actresses, who get fewer roles for less pay than their white counterparts, were mostly saved in this instance because of their lack of desirability in the eyes of the mainstream. Weinstein was reported to have turned down actress Sophie Okonedo for a role because he doubted that she was “fuckable” enough to draw audiences. Adewunmi’s thinking didn’t sit right with me; sexually predatory behavior isn’t fundamentally about desirability. Also, women of color — especially indigenous women — have a higher lifetime incidence of sexual violence than white women and are less likely to report it to authorities or use social services to get help. We haven’t been saved from anything just because multitudes of us aren’t on one predator’s list.

There was a lot of silence after Nyong’o spoke up, and with R. Kelly’s victims, there’s been a similar silence. Perhaps it’s news fatigue: Everything is exhausting and heartbreaking, and one can only be outraged so much. Still, it’s curiously telling who the outrage and action follows. There are black women writers and activists who’ve tried to wake us up to the horror of Kelly’s behavior, yet he continues to tour and record music. Right now, on this very day, about half a dozen girls and women may be held in a weird, multi-city sex cult in R. Kelly’s homes. Some of their parents have asked for help. Aren’t they worthy of our collective fury, too?

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Harvey Weinstein’s Failed Attempt to Hire Private Eyes to Silence His Accusers

(Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Ronan Farrow has another stunning story about Harvey Weinstein in The New Yorker, this time revealing how the Hollywood mogul hired private investigators, including ex-Mossad agents, to dig up dirt on journalists investigating him and on his accusers in an attempt to quash sexual abuse allegations made against him.

Here’s one example, of an agent from Black Cube (an “enterprise run largely by former officers of Mossad and other Israeli intelligence agencies”), who Weinstein hired to extract information from the actress Rose McGowan:

In May, 2017, McGowan received an e-mail from a literary agency introducing her to a woman who identified herself as Diana Filip, the deputy head of sustainable and responsible investments at Reuben Capital Partners, a London-based wealth-management firm. Filip told McGowan that she was launching an initiative to combat discrimination against women in the workplace, and asked McGowan, a vocal women’s-rights advocate, to speak at a gala kickoff event later that year. Filip offered McGowan a fee of sixty thousand dollars. “I understand that we have a lot in common,” Filip wrote to McGowan before their first meeting, in May, at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. Filip had a U.K. cell-phone number, and she spoke with what McGowan took to be a German accent. Over the following months, the two women met at least three more times at hotel bars in Los Angeles and New York and other locations. “I took her to the Venice boardwalk and we had ice cream while we strolled,” McGowan told me, adding that Filip was “very kind.” The two talked at length about issues relating to women’s empowerment. Filip also repeatedly told McGowan that she wanted to make a significant investment in McGowan’s production company.

Filip was persistent. In one e-mail, she suggested meeting in Los Angeles and then, when McGowan said she would be in New York, Filip said she could meet there just as easily. She also began pressing McGowan for information. In a conversation in July, McGowan revealed to Filip that she had spoken to me as part of my reporting on Weinstein. A week later, I received an e-mail from Filip asking for a meeting and suggesting that I join her campaign to end professional discrimination against women. “I am very impressed with your work as a male advocate for gender equality, and believe that you would make an invaluable addition to our activities,” she wrote, using her wealth-management firm’s e-mail address. Unsure of who she was, I did not respond.

Filip continued to meet with McGowan. In one meeting in September, Filip was joined by another Black Cube operative, who used the name Paul and claimed to be a colleague at Reuben Capital Partners. The goal, according to two sources with knowledge of the effort, was to pass McGowan to another operative to extract more information. On October 10th, the day The New Yorker published my story about Weinstein, Filip reached out to McGowan in an e-mail. “Hi Love,” she wrote. “How are you feeling? . . . Just wanted to tell you how brave I think you are.” She signed off with an “xx.” Filip e-mailed McGowan as recently as October 23rd.

In fact, “Diana Filip” was an alias for a former officer in the Israeli Defense Forces who originally hailed from Eastern Europe and was working for Black Cube, according to three individuals with knowledge of the situation. When I sent McGowan photos of the Black Cube agent, she recognized her instantly. “Oh my God,” she wrote back. “Reuben Capital. Diana Filip. No fucking way.”

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An Urban Planner Against the Developer Presidency

Trump Tower Chicago. Photo: Getty Images

Rachel Weber | The Avery Review | 11 minutes (2,885 words) 

The essay below originally appeared in The Avery Review, Issue 21 (January 2017) and was recently collected in a book called And Now: Architecture Against a Developer Presidency. This essay is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

Ego and social networks, more so than efficiency and expertise, are rewarded in the attention economy in which [real estate developers] operate.

Much has been made of having a corporate executive in the Oval Office. Donald Trump claims that, given his business experience, he will be able to be an effective negotiator, grow the economy, and make efficient allocation decisions with scarce resources. On the campaign trail, in tweets, and in televised debates, Trump has sold himself as a man of commerce, connected only to the material, productive economy and not the fictive, financialized one responsible for the Great Recession. He repeatedly criticized Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street ties, contrasting them to his own righteous independence, noting, “I don’t care about the Wall Street guys… I’m not taking any of their money.”

But real estate developers, particularly those in the high-stakes world of downtown commercial real estate, are not ordinary businessmen. Large-scale developers generally subscribe to a worldview that grants them considerable agency as strategic risk takers in an environment that is (according to them) largely of their own making. To see development potential that few others see, to take risks that few would want to shoulder, and to control the physical settings in which millions of people go about their daily lives—all this fosters a God complex to which few corporate CEOs would admit. Such sentiment is captured by Tom Wolfe in his novel A Man in Full, as the developer-protagonist admires the Atlanta skyline from his private plane. He mentally pats himself on the back: “I did that! That’s my handiwork! I’m one of the giants who built this city! I’m a star!” Ego and social networks, more so than efficiency and expertise, are rewarded in the attention economy in which they operate. Read more…

Meditations in an Emergency

(AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

If America’s storytellers “lost the narrative they had been creating for decades” the morning after the 2016 elections, as Esquire explains in its oral history of the national trauma that began one year ago today, we’ve been writing our way out ever since. We’ve been knocking on doors, asking people why they did what they did, and asking ourselves how to fix it. We’ve been writing out our feelings, making fun where we can and commiserating where we can’t. Storytelling has been a way of getting through this, and we’re still getting through this.

Perhaps you won’t want to read this piece. I understand. I had to let one more election night pass before I could even begin a history that starts with Steve Bannon’s triumphant proclamation, “You have a hundred-percent chance of winning.”

We’re not the only ones reliving this day: it was also the day the nightmare began for Donald Trump. It was his last good day and he won’t let us forget it. Instead, think about how much has changed, and how far we still have to go.

David Remnickeditor of The New Yorker: I thought about, and actually wrote, an essay about “the first woman president,” and the historical background of it all. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the suffragettes, the relationship with Frederick Douglass…a historical essay, clearly written in a mood of “at long last” and, yes, celebration. The idea was to press “post” on that piece, along with many other pieces by my colleagues at The New Yorker, the instant Clinton’s victory was declared on TV…

We agreed that night, and we agree today, that the Trump presidency is an emergency. And in an emergency, you’ve got a purpose, a job to do, and ours is to put pressure on power. That’s always the highest calling of journalism, but never more so than when power is a constant threat to the country and in radical opposition to its values and its highest sense of itself.

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Can Portland’s River Cleanup Correct Environmental Injustice?

AP Photo/Don Ryan

Fishing isn’t sport for everyone. Many urban residents rely on rivers and lakes to supplement their diets. In Oregon Humanities magazine, journalist Julia Rosen looks at the people of color who once relied on the Willamette River for food, pleasure, and work. The Willamette runs right through downtown Portland, Oregon. After industry and urbanization polluted it, the Environmental Protection Agency declared Portland Harbor a superfund site, and many locals quit fishing it. A new 13-year, billion-dollar plan has the potential to clean this beautiful river, which could reconnect certain communities with what Rosen calls the city’s lifeblood. But gentrification has already displaced many black families, physically separating them from the river. The question now is whether the cleanup can create jobs for impacted communities and right the city’s many racial injustices.

Historian Ellen Stroud has written that the pollution of the slough reveals a story of environmental racism. North Portland has been associated with African Americans since Henry Kaiser built Vanport, a housing development for his shipyard workers, along the Columbia’s southern bank. From 1942 until 1948, when it was destroyed in a catastrophic flood, Vanport housed the majority of Portland’s Black population.

That association, Stroud writes, seems to have contributed to the decision to sacrifice North Portland—and the slough—to industry. North Portland also housed the city’s primary garbage dump from 1940 to 1991, and has long suffered from poor air quality.

“Whenever you look at where those toxic substances and hazardous substances lodge,” says Robin Collin, “it inevitably follows color.” Collin is an environmental justice expert and law professor at Willamette University in Salem. She says this pattern has been documented repeatedly, and often emerges from the perception that fear and disenfranchisement will keep communities of color from protesting the pollution.

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