Tag Archives: government

My Journey to the Heart of the FOIA Request

Illustration by J.D. Reeves

Spenser Mestel | Longreads | September 2017 | 21 minutes (5,400 words)

On July 2, 1972, Angela Davis was sitting in the Plateau Seven restaurant in Santa Clara County, California, a few blocks from the courthouse where she’d spent the previous 13 weeks on trial for criminal conspiracy, kidnapping, and murder. The jury had just started deliberating, and Davis was eating with Rodney Barnette, a friend and former Black Panther. While the two talked, a local reporter emerged from the courthouse pressroom with news for Davis’s family and the activists gathered there: Four black men had hijacked a Western Airlines 727 jetliner carrying 98 passengers and were en route from Seattle to San Francisco. (Later it was confirmed there were only two hijackers, one man and one woman.) Not only were the hijackers demanding $500,000 and four parachutes, but they also wanted these items delivered by Davis, who was to stand on the runway of San Francisco International Airport in a white dress.

When the news reached the restaurant, several patrons around Davis and Barnette suddenly surrounded the pair’s table; these were in fact FBI agents dressed in civilian clothes. Almost a year earlier, Davis had been charged in California with aiding and abetting a murder. Though she hadn’t been at the scene, authorities alleged that guns she’d purchased were used to kill a superior-court judge. The Black Panthers relied on sympathetic Vietnam veterans, like Rodney Barnette, to acquire arms and train new members to use them. Barnette, however, had left the Panthers four years earlier following a suspicious interaction. At a meeting, a stranger claiming to be part of the “Panther Underground” had called Barnette into a back office and told him to beat members who arrived late. Barnette objected. (“We can’t do that to our own people,” he said an interview later. “How could we differentiate the police beating people, and us beating people?”) The man suggested he leave the group.

“I always thought he was some FBI agent,” Barnette would tell an interviewer in 2017. “Some agent provocateur or informant that all of a sudden appeared to try to split the party up.” This unnerving feeling of suspicion persisted even after Barnette left the Panthers. The FBI continued to interview his family members in Ohio, Massachusetts, and Los Angeles, where Barnette had moved and gotten a job as a letter carrier. Despite stellar evaluations from his superiors, in 1969 Barnette was fired from the Postal Service, after less than a year on the job, for living with a woman he wasn’t married to, which qualified at the time as “conduct unbecoming a government employee.”

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Building a New Society for Black Americans, First in Mississippi

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

As Southern novelist William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In racially divided America, this is as true as ever. James Baldwin would recognize his era in ours, where police routinely kill unarmed people of color and the Klan still marches past their beloved Confederate statues, unobstructed by police. When it comes to racism and violence, America still looks much like it always has. But the past holds certain ideas whose potential has thankfully never passed either.

In the Oxford American, Katie Gilbert reports from Jackson, Mississippi, where a coalition is working to empower black communities through economic and political independence. After trying to help create a majority-black nation in the Deep South in the 1970s, mayor Chokwe Lumumba pursued a similar goal on a smaller scale: turning Jackson into a model of a new, more equitable autonomous society driven by cooperative economics, and no longer divided by race, class, and violence. After the mayor died, his son Antar Lumumba and a group of engaged citizens have taken the helm of what’s called the Jackson-Kush Plan, advocating their own farming, manufacturing, and alternative currency. Its goal is nothing less than transforming society.

In one of his first questions to Antar, Rhodes bored directly into the discomfort that plenty of Jacksonians still felt about the Lumumbas, pointing to the history of the PG-RNA and the sense that Antar’s platform had been born out of some sort of bigger plan—or “agenda,” as the more suspicious tended to put it. “One of the concerns that came up in the last election,” Rhodes said, his eyes on Antar, “was about whether or not, for lack of a better way of saying it, Antar Lumumba is going to be an anti-white mayor, and push away white folks, and gonna bring in nationalists, and it’s going to be Jafrica and all these kinds of things.” Some murmuring and laughter broke out around the room. 

“I appreciate you asking that question, Pastor Rhodes,” Lumumba began. In his job as a criminal defense attorney, he said, he worked with many people who don’t look like him, and had plenty of success. But his voice was climbing stairs, building up to something higher. “I’ve been labeled as a radical,” he continued. “My father was labeled as a radical. You were told that he would divide the city and what was demonstrated was something entirely different.” Antar would tell me later that he and the MXGM members helping to run the campaign had made the concerted decision to embrace the loaded “radical” descriptor that had been hurled at his father and at him in his previous campaign. His pace quickened a few steps, riding on its own momentum. “Honestly, when people call me a radical, I take it as a badge of honor. Because Martin Luther King was radical.” Applause spread through the room. “Medgar Evers was radical.” The applause intensified, and so did Antar. “Jesus Christ was radical.” The applause didn’t break, so he spoke louder to be heard. “The reality is that we have to be prepared to be as radical as circumstances dictate we should be. If you look outside these doors and you see a need for a change, then you should all be radical.” I heard shouts of “Amen!” He went on, “And the reality is that we haven’t found ourselves in the condition we’re in because someone has been too radical for us.” He inflected these last few words. “I would argue we haven’t been radical enough.” The applause carried on like an unbroken wave. 

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The Elephant in the Flood

Businesses in Humble, Texas, are surrounded by floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

Flood insurance suffers from actuarial issues that health insurance doesn’t. Whereas health insurance (theoretically) depends on people who need less care subsidizing those who need more, everyone who buys flood insurance needs it — and when catastrophic flooding happens, insurance has to pay out thousands of people at once. Efforts to revamp flood insurance programs move in fits and starts, securing payouts can be a challenge, and no one’s really sure if raising rates or privatizing the insurance programs to make them more financially feasible will actually help. Kate Aronoff walks us through all the policy implications at The Intercept.

The even bigger policy question is whether higher and more competitive rates will actually incentivize fewer people to live along high-risk coastlines, or just leave the shore open only to those wealthy homeowners and developers who can afford higher rates and round after round of rebuilding. President Donald Trump also repealed an Obama-era mandate for flood-prone construction, so there’s no guarantee that new shorefront structures will be able to withstand future damage. The result of higher rates, Elliot predicts, “is the socioeconomic transformation along with the physical transformation of the coastlines.”

Of course, the elephant wading through the flood is the fact that there are now millions of people living in areas that shouldn’t be inhabited at all, no matter the cost. “There’s the uncertainty of living at risk,” Elliot says, “and there’s the uncertainty of what it means to stay in your community when in the near to medium term, it’s going to become more expensive for you to do so — and in the long term, physically impossible.”

All we do know: as climate change continues, there are only going to be more floods. And while the words “insurance actuarial tables” might make your eyes glaze over, the need to rebuild or relocate from flood zones is going to become an issue for more and more people.

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Garrett Graff Joins Longreads to Cover Border Patrol and Government Policy

Arizona border
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Agents gather along the International border near Naco, Ariz. Photo: AP Images

We’re excited to announce that journalist Garrett M. Graff is joining Longreads as a contributing writer covering border security and immigration, federal law enforcement, and the mechanics of how government works. Read more…

This Land Should Be Your Land: A National Parks Reading List

(Yellowstone National Park / Flickr)

When President Obama walked out of the Oval Office earlier this year, he left behind more land protected under federal law than any of his predecessors. President Trump appears intent on challenging that legacy, recently ordering a sweeping review of national monuments with an aim to “balance” the protection of these lands. (The Bureau of Land Management also recently added banners to its website to evoke the wondrous vistas of coal mining and oil drilling.)

It’s not yet clear whether Trump will actually try to revoke Obama-era designations—or whether he’d succeed if he does—but the land protected under federal law has been a mix of majesty and mystery ever since Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act designating the nation’s first national park. Writers have used their craft to ask fascinating questions and expose the weird underbellies of national parks, monuments, and federal lands since long before Trump ever expressed an antipathy toward them.

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The Best Longreads From Trump’s First 100 Days

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

Michelle Legro | Longreads | April 2017 | 7 minutes (1,773 words)

 

Day 100 is a Saturday, which is good because Donald Trump should probably get some rest. Saturdays are usually fairly easy for the president—he took the first one off right after his own inauguration—a day he can kick back and enjoy some quality time with a piece of chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago.

The Trump Administration introduced the American people to a new kind of time, one that moves with a glacial tick of the clock, but with the drama of a high school lunch period. To look back on the early days—yes, that was three months ago—is to find reporters breathlessly navigating the events of a single day in a flurry of tweets, with little time for a proper write-up before the next dramatic turn of events. We found ourselves asking what the fuck just happened today? as it became harder and harder to remember what happened an hour ago, let alone a day. However, it quickly became clear that journalists were digging in for the long fight. And while the best reporting has often been short, spry, and effective in these first crucial days, these were some of the longreads that stood out.

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Where Were You the First Time You Realized the Government Wasn’t Always On the Ball?

Crews of convicts clean up oil-soaked straw on the beach in Santa Barbara, Calif. (AP Photo/Wally Fong, FILE)

Pacific Standard writer Kate Wheeling and editor Max Ufberg wrangled a comprehensive, meticulous, and fascinating oral history of the 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara, California, that galvanized environmental activism, ultimately leading to the creation of a slew of federal environmental regulations and agencies. The whole read is great—Wheeling and Ufberg pulled in everyone from local activists to oil company lawyers to journalists—but one section on cleanup tactics stands out as both interesting and quaint.

Bottoms: The way they cleaned it up was they brought in straw. Bales and bales of straw.

Hazard: They didn’t have the oil response teams that they have now. We were totally unprepared for it. You know, what were we going to do?

Relis: I thought these oil companies and the federal government had sort of a game plan, but this was a joke. They were throwing straw down on the beach to lap up the oil with pitchforks and hiring people off the street! I mean, this was funky.

Bottoms: And they’d throw the straw out into the harbor too, and they’d take pitchforks and get convicts down there in little barges and lift the straw out of the ocean and drive the straw up the coast to a dump.

Relis: That was kind of eye-opening — that big companies and big government can be so incompetent.

It’s true, kids! Barely more than 40 years ago, government and corporations were assumed to be generally competent and responsible. The times, how they change.

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‘The Stakes May Be the Survival of Civilization’

Paintings supported by the NEA were covered in shrouds at the Cincinnati Art Museum in 1990 to protest cuts to the federal program. (AP Photo / Al Behrman)

First Annual Report / National Endowment for the Arts / 1966 / 9 minutes (2,200 words)

With the signing of the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act on September 29, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson completed the vision supported by John F. Kennedy for a federal council for the arts. The Trump Administration’s newly proposed budget would eliminate the program entirely. Here is an excerpt from the NEA’s First Annual Report from 1966.

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LOL, JFK: The Hot Mess That Is U.S. Immigration Law

immigrants examined upon arriving at ellis island
Image from the Library of Congress, in the public domain.

Immigration lawyer Matt Cameron writes in The Baffler, laying bare the inequities, misconceptions, and plain old messiness that characterize U.S. immigration law. It’s getting more attention under the new Trump administration but as Cameron takes pains to explain, immigration policy has been a disaster in the making for years.

“Immigration policy,” President Kennedy wrote, “should be generous; it should be fair; it should be flexible. With such a policy we can turn to the world, and to our own past, with clean hands and a clear conscience.” LOL, JFK.

Our current immigration system is far from generous, fair, or flexible, and every branch of government is culpable. There are entire pages of our immigration statutes that read as though they were drafted by congressional interns, using nothing more than a dartboard for their research. And the demagogic cast of our immigration policy debates has provided them with no incentive to do better. Executive orders, policy memos, and implementing regulations come and go with each election, and maddeningly disparate holdings from federal courts around the country, currently overseen by a deadlocked Supreme Court, preclude any realistic possibility of a coherent interpretation of the laws.

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Ten Letters A Day: To Obama With Love, and Hate, and Desperation

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In The New York Times Magazine, Jeanne Marie Laskas goes behind the scenes in the White House mailroom where “50 staff members, 36 interns, and a rotating roster of 300 volunteers” read and processed the 10,000 emails and letters President Barack Obama received daily during his eight-year presidency. From the 10,000 pieces of correspondence, staffers were charged with choosing the ten letters that Obama read each day.

President Obama was the first to come up with a deliberate and explicit practice of 10 letters every day. If the president was home at the White House (he did not tend to mail when he traveled), he would be reading constituent mail, and everyone knew it, and systems were put in place to make sure it happened. The mail had currency. Some staff members called it “the letter underground.” Starting in 2010, all hard mail would be scanned and preserved. Starting in 2011, every email every day would be used to create a word cloud, its image distributed around the White House so policy makers and staff members alike could get a glimpse at what everyday Americans were writing in to say.

Curating the 10LADs was a job she regarded as sacrosanct. She thought of it as a daily conversation with the president, each package an array of voices she believed most accurately rendered America’s mood: Here’s what America is feeling, Mr. President. “Sometimes I think of it as a tray passing under a door,” she said.

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