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Canada’s Conservative Party picks Andrew Scheer in a nail-biting race

May 27, 2017 - 7:25pm

In a huge upset, Andrew Scheer is the newest leader of the Conservative Party.

The Saskatchewan member of Parliament, and former speaker of the House of Commons, managed to overcome frontrunner Maxime Bernier, despite a quiet, and underfunded, campaign.

Scheer, a quiet, no-frills politician from the prairies, will be an odd fit going up against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Scheer ran on a campaign that largely echoed many of the policies and priorities of his predecessor, Stephen Harper, in a clear sign that the party membership weren’t quite ready to take a huge jump into the unknown. Scheer gets high marks from the Campaign Life Coalition, a pro-life lobby group, but, like his predecessor, he has also pledged to not re-open debates around abortion and gay marriage.

Yet his promise to leave behind divisive social issues could be made harder by the strong showing of the party’s socially conservative base.

The nail-biting result of the race, which boasted a crowded field of 13 candidates — including TV personality Kevin O’Leary, who quit and yet came in 11th place — went down to the very last ballot, leaving centrist Erin O’Toole as the kingmaker.

The incredibly tight results were a clear sign that Bernier, the brash self-styled libertarian from Quebec, failed to crystallize the membership after O’Leary, the one-time frontrunner, endorsed his campaign.

The results were also a stark reminder that the unified Conservative Party, which has been helmed by Harper for most of its existence — a leader who forcefully forbade social conservatives from agitating for pro-life or anti-gay issues too publicly — still had a powerful social conservative lobby in its midst.

As the first ballots came in, it became clear that victory was further from Bernier’s grasp than expected.

It is virtually tied. Just 700-odd points separate Scheer and Bernier. Crowd here seems very, very surprised.

— Justin Ling (@Justin_Ling) May 27, 2017

Moderates in the race posted disappointing results, with former cabinet minister Lisa Raitt placing eighth, and reform-minded MP Michael Chong coming fifth.

O’Toole, who became a late-stage consensus candidate for many establishment Conservatives came third — which many on his team admitted, the night before, was the likely outcome. Yet he captured just half the points of his nearest rival, Scheer, and little more than a third of the frontrunner, Bernier.

This is an incredible result for the social conservatives. They’re definitely showing some power in these results.

— Justin Ling (@Justin_Ling) May 27, 2017

The result that shocked many in the room was the impressive support for avowedly social conservative candidates Pierre Lemieux and Brad Trost.

As the ballots wore on, it became increasingly clear that the two had tapped into an undercurrent of support amongst family-minded Conservatives, even though their message — unapologetically pro-life, anti-gay marriage, and hostile towards affording more rights to transgender Canadians — is considered well outside the mainstream.

Both Trost and Lemieux, in their closing speeches the night before the results were unveiled, made a forceful pitch for a Conservative Party that is willing to rehash the social debates that many in the party want to move on from.

Gosh, this is close. #cpcldr pic.twitter.com/zVJbCBkvf3

— kady o’malley (@kady) May 27, 2017

Even Rona Ambrose, the immensely popular interim leader, pitched a Conservative Party that can reach out to a broader swath of Canadians, spending much of her outgoing speech as leader talking about women’s issues and telling her party that it must be a large tent — pointedly mentioning “whether you’re straight or gay.”

Kellie Leitch, who ran an avowedly nationalist campaign that was frequently compared to Donald Trump and took up much of the airtime at points in the race, posted a dismal result.

i can’t help thinking this might not have been the leading narrative some Conservatives were hoping would emerge. https://t.co/5SP9FoiImW

— kady o’malley (@kady) May 27, 2017

The way in which the votes were tabulated, which gave all of Canada’s 338 ridings equal weight, regardless of members in the riding, no doubt led to the surprising results.

The next Conservative leader will have to party to rebuild

May 27, 2017 - 10:25am

When Maxime Bernier first entered Parliament, he could’ve hit the prime minister with a spitball.

The Quebecer, who entered government as the minister of industry, was just a few seats away from then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He, a lawyer, entrepreneur, and wonk, somehow waltzed into Parliament and, on day one, sat at the cool kids’ table.

Now, Bernier is on the cusp of taking control of Canada’s second-largest party, which has never been more rife with schisms and fracture. His job now is to pull together all those loose ends and hold them — something that he, black sheep of the Conservative Party, might not be all that cut out for.

Bernier’s ascension to Harper’s cabinet wasn’t entirely a lark. After all, the Conservative Party had barely snuck into power with a razor-thin minority in 2006. They won just 10 seats in Quebec, a province that had become a target for the prime minister for more seats.

“This is the first convention where we’re the normal ones.”

Of those 10, four got portfolio posts in the early days of the government. Of those, Bernier was the only real political neophyte. Being plucked from relative obscurity was no small feat — especially given that, just a year later, he was bumped up to minister of foreign affairs.

For those familiar with Bernier, what comes next is a tired story: a less-than-stellar performance for a foreign minister, and Bernier’s on-again-off-again relationship with Julie Couillard, who had launched her own security firm but who had previous links with organized crime. When it came to light that he had left sensitive NATO documents on her coffee table, Harper fired him.

Bernier was banished, in 2008, to forgotten benches of the House of Commons. His seat-mate was Michael Chong, who had kiboshed his own cabinet post by resigning in protest. In the seat in front of him was Mark Warawa, a noted social conservative with no real stature in the government. Bernier was effectively in exile.

At a leadership event at a blank, white-and-gray convention centre in suburban Toronto, near the airport, stuck next to a significantly more exciting anime convention, Bernier’s team seemed almost giddy with excitement.

Standing next to the raucous line for the open bar in one of his competitor’s hospitality suites, a prominent endorser for Bernier held court with a gaggle of eager young Conservatives, telling them:

“This is the first convention where we’re the normal ones.”

The social conservative cabal

Bernier spent years clawing his way back up the ladder. But while in the political wilderness, Harper’s Conservative Party began to fracture.

In 2013, Mark Warawa — the one sitting just ahead of Bernier — stood up and led a caucus mutiny.

The broad-shouldered, square-jawed Conservative wanted to introduce a motion to condemn sex-selective abortion. Warawa sat in an undercover cabal inside his party: The pro-life caucus.

As a unit, they pushed against their minders and babysitters in the prime minister’s office, disregarding the edict that abortion mustn’t cross the lips of any sitting member of the Conservative Party.

He and his cohort put the screws to their political masters — speaking at pro-life rallies; filing Parliamentary grievances against their own party, decrying censorship; introducing motions and bills to advance the pro-life cause.

Brad Trost, one of the club, bragged that he leveraged the pressure to have the prime minister drop funding for foreign abortion services. It was remarks like this that made Trost none-too-popular in the prime minister’s office.

It was a rare display of independence for the social conservatives in their unified Conservative Party, and the first real evidence that an unlikely political marriage may, one day, end in divorce.

As this schism within the party faithful was going on, Bernier was returning into Stephen Harper’s good graces. First, he was made minister of state for small business and tourism. In 2013, not long after Warawa’s revolt, he picked up agriculture. His seating assignment edged closer and closer to the seat of power, and away from the island of lost boys.

The Canada-first crowd

When plain-spoken Member of Parliament Larry Miller, in 2015, instructed niqab-wearing women to “stay the hell where you came from” when she protested his government’s ban on the face-covering at citizenship ceremonies, his party clutched their hair in dismay. Miller was contrite in his apology.

It was just one in a long line of gaffes and policies that made it hard for party, which had prided itself on outreach to immigrants and ethnic communities, to kick the image that it was a party of, and for, white men — “old stock Canadians,” as Harper would later infamously utter.

Illustration by Ethan Tennier-Stuart

There were those in his party who worked tirelessly to fight that stereotype. Deepak Obhrai, born in Tanzania into a Hindu family, was first elected as a Reform Party MP in 1997 and saw his party morph from a Western protest party into a modern, centrist conservative party that managed to hold onto power for nearly a decade. That success was thanks in no small part to Obhrai and a phalanx of other diverse faces on the Conservative benches who contested the idea that the Liberal Party had a monopoly on the voice of Canada’s cultural communities.

But even then, the party pursued quixotic policies that endeared the base but genuinely offended the broadstream of Canadian politics.

Chris Alexander traded on his experience as ambassador to Afghanistan as cache in a government whose depth on foreign affairs matters sometimes came up short. (Bernier’s tenure as foreign affairs minister proved that.)

Kellie Leitch came in mid-way through the Harper era, and had neither allegiance to the progressive nor the reform Conservative crowds. She billed herself as modern, but pro-life.

It was fitting that she and Alexander were paired together to make a mid-campaign announcement that the government was set to launch a tip line for barbaric cultural practises, a perfect illustration of the cognitive dissonance between a party obsessed with reaching out beyond its traditional lilly-white base, but doing it in the most caustically counter-productive way imaginable.

The PC Club

The Harper government’s early days were tumultuous, at best.

He went through four foreign ministers in the first five years of his government, cycled through ministers of the environment almost yearly, and lost ministers like Chong and Bernier outright.

Illustration by Ethan Tennier-Stuart

So it’s no great surprise that, over the years, once Harper found a minister he liked, he stuck with them.

Lisa Raitt is a prime example: An East Coast Progressive Conservative from suburbia Toronto with labor bona fides who represented the symbol of growth for the Conservative Party.

Yet, while serving as the tax minister, Raitt waded into a swamp of trouble by getting caught on tape calling government file involving cancer “sexy” and denigrating her cabinet colleagues. And, yet, Harper kept her in cabinet and even promoted her to labour minister.

But serving in the Harper cabinet wasn’t exactly a glorious job. The grind of helming a party that appeared set to burst at any time, underneath a leader whose obsessive top-down message control never truly let up — it grew tiresome.

The steady-handed moderates in the party all began to ride off in the sunset, one-by-one. Shelly Glover, John Baird, James Moore, Peter McKay. Some, like Leona Aglukkaq, lost their seats in ridings rubbed the wrong way by three consecutive Conservative governments. Rona Ambrose put in her hat for one last job before leaving politics.

One of the few trusted technocrats left was Raitt.

Madly off in all directions

When the Harper government was ousted in 2015, and the odds-on favourites to succeed him began to drop one-by-one, despair in the Conservative ranks began.

The eventual crowd that filed their registration papers did not inspire confidence amongst the party establishment, but it certainly energized different wings of the base.

If you were sitting in the back of the Gayety Theatre in Collingwood, you saw a dedicated crowd of old-and-new-stock Canadians, thrusting KELLIE signs into the air. One woman yelling “Canada first!” was easily audible over Kellie Leitch’s thin voice, even with the theatre’s sound system. Since that launch, her campaign has been lurching toward disparate policy points, working diligently — and, in the beginning, effectively — to gin up curious media coverage. But as the race wore on, so did patience for her increasingly bizarre efforts to copy-and-paste Donald Trump’s electoral playbook into Canada, from her tweeted threat at Canada’s sanctuary cities to her dogmatic defence of pepper spray, an unlikely dark horse became simply unlikely.

They are radical left-wing activists trying to deconstruct traditional social norms…”

It was the opposite, if you were sitting amongst the 40 enraptured supporters at Toronto’s Canada Christian College, where Brad Trost stood between two standing signs that bore his name. He ran as an unapologetic bannerman for some of the party’s most controversial and hardline position. He would defund abortion services, ramp up prosecutions for gun crime, return power to parents to pull their children from school if they feared education on sexuality and gender. And his Leave It To Beaver nostalgia worked well on the crowd and, indeed, it seems to be emulsifying into a voting bloc that can’t be ignored. Between Trost and fellow so-con Pierre Lemieux, the two began to register in the polls, boasted serious membership sign-ups, and dragged in a significant pot of cash. Neither will win in Saturday’s vote, nor are they likely to place in the top five, but their presence can’t be ignored. Lemieux’s speech on Friday night, decrying the liberal consensus on gay marriage and abortion, actually lit up the crowd in a way that other front-runners did not.

Sitting on the private box at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto, overlooking the stage where the leadership contenders were going at it, the media began wondering if the party had made a mistake by giving the audience alcohol before the event. Boos, catcalls, raucous cheers all erupted from the crowd as they mocked and jeered at various candidates. But they actually quieted, and even applauded, when Lisa Raitt took the stage to follow Leitch, thundering “When I take my son to basketball, and I see a diverse sea of parents, I don’t want them to think that I expect them, as a Conservative, to write a test to prove to me how Canadian they are.” It was a loud, ringing endorsement of a reasonable wing of the party that had been oddly quiet and confusingly marginalized for the months-long contest.

It’s perhaps not surprising, given the field in front of the party members — and with a Kevin O’Leary-sized hole in the race — that Bernier is thoroughly in the lead, within a clear path to victory. He’s managed to dance in a lot of circles.

Illustration by Ethan Tennier-Stuart

Pro-life, pro-gay, and generally socially progressive, Bernier turned heads as a different kind of conservative. Over the years, he had consistently voted to extend human rights protections to trans people, even as his party’s leadership counselled against it.

But as he struggled to elbow-out Leitch, and with the looming threat of Kevin O’Leary entering the race persisted — and as social conservatives began to flex some muscle in the race — Bernier took a sharp right turn.

“There has been a proliferation of groups that claim various sexual identities in recent years. Some of these groups are not fighting for equality of rights and respect for sexual minorities,” Bernier wrote on Facebook. “They are radical left-wing activists trying to deconstruct traditional social norms and impose their marginal perspective on everyone, including by forcing us to change the way we talk.”

He was announcing that he would not longer support transgender rights legislation. From there, he posed arm-in-arm with alt-right folk hero Jordan Peterson, and trumpeted an endorsement from hard right-wing Albertan politician Derek Fildebrandt, who was suspended from his party last year after a transphobic remark targeted at Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.

On immigration, Bernier has also tipped his hat to Leitch. He vowed to cap immigration to Canada at roughly 250,000 — despite an economic consensus that Canada needs to expand its labour pool as birth rates decline — and to tool an immigration system towards the goal of preserving Canadian identity, whatever that may be.

“Our immigration policy should not aim to forcibly change the cultural character and social fabric of Canada, as radical proponents of multiculturalism want,” as his official policy book reads.

What comes next

Bernier supporters, when asked whether they expect him to unify the party, shrug.

One Bernier booster, cornered at a pub where Erin O’Toole was glad-handing a mob of supporters — some of whom remain optimistic he could rally enough second-and-third-and-fourth-choice support to overcome Bernier, and others who admit he’s likely to come third — admitted that mugging for the social conservatives and the nationalists throughout the race may have been a mistake. Now those various wings of the party expect something from him.

But still others are honestly just worried about his grasp of policy. While his campaign was originally run as an unlikely eventuality, his campaign team may now be required to actually put those policies into action. One such policy, shredding the Canada Health Act, might prove toxically unpopular with the general public.

And long-time party faithful are concerned that he doesn’t have the depth of experience to pull it off. At the centre of his campaign is Kory Teneycke, the hard-headed former communications director for Harper who is reviled for his antagonistic approach to the media. Around him is a mix of mid-level Conservative staffers, relatively inexperienced young Conservatives, and former party interns.

Many who currently staff interim leader Rona Ambrose aren’t expected to stick around under Bernier’s party, and his supporters have already mused openly about cleaning house in the party, should they win. It’s not surprising that many of the central crowd to the party has backed either O’Toole or Andrew Scheer, the former speaker who has both social conservative chops but little of the baggage of his other candidates.

The unveiling of the votes on Saturday evening are sure to usher a new era in the Conservative Party. Whether the Conservative Party itself can survive Bernier remains to be seen.

“Tampon tax” set to end in Florida

May 26, 2017 - 8:26pm

The so-called “tampon tax” took another hit this week as Florida joined the growing number of states looking to end what one lawmaker has dubbed a “gender inequality.”

On Thursday, Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a tax relief package that included a provision that will end the state’s sales tax on feminine hygiene products in January. The push to end states’ tampon taxes surged into the national consciousness in 2015 and 2016, earning the title of “viral legislation” among reporters, but the media hubbub over the movement has largely died down in the wake of the Donald Trump presidency.

Nevertheless, lawmakers have persisted in their efforts to end the tampon tax. So far in the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers in California, Michigan, Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Virginia, and Washington state have all proposed bills to end their state’s tampon taxes.

The “tampon tax,” for the uninitiated, is the term for sales taxes on period-related products like tampons, pads, and menstrual cups. Five states lack sales tax entirely, but in the states that do, certain items — such as groceries and medications — are exempt because they’re considered “necessities,” according to the conservative-leaning Tax Foundation. However, in all but eight of the states that do use sales tax, feminine hygiene products are not considered necessities, but categorized as “luxuries,” and are taxed as such.

For decades, this tax went largely overlooked; before 2005, only five states had moved to end it. But critics of the tampon tax now argue that it financially penalizes women, as they can’t just refuse to menstruate.

“Basically we are being taxed for being women,” California state assemblymember Cristina Garcia said in a statement last year when she announced a bill to end her state’s tampon tax. “This is a step in the right direction to fix this gender injustice. Women have no choice but to buy these products, so the economic effect is only felt by woman [sic] and women of color are particularly hard hit by this tax. You can’t just ignore your period.”

Garcia also pointed out that in California, as in several other states, erectile dysfunction drugs like Viagra are not taxed. While Democratic California Gov. Jerry Brown ultimately vetoed Garcia’s bill after it passed the legislature, citing budget concerns, Garcia reintroduced it this year.

Self-described “menstrual equity” activist Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, told Time that 14 states and three major American cities sought to end the tax in 2016. Illinois, New York, Connecticut, and the District of Columbia all succeeded. The movement has also gone international: that same year, Canada eliminated its tampon tax.

Canadian incomes have only increased by 3 percent since 2012

May 26, 2017 - 1:44pm

Canadian incomes climbed a paltry three percent between 2012 and 2015, according to the latest data released by Statistics Canada today. The median after-tax income of Canadian families and unattached individuals stood at a dismal $56,000 in 2015, a mere 0.4 percent increase from the year before.

In 2015, Canadians who were single and under 65, (not married or in a common-law relationship) had a median after-tax income of $29,400. That basically means that half of non-senior single Canadians earned less than $29,400, and the other half earned more.

Another statistic worth mentioning — single-parent families had a median after-tax income of $45,700, less than half the median after-tax income of two-parents families. That number was virtually unchanged from 2012 to 2015, indicating that we have barely seen any kind of income growth for single parents in Canada.

Home prices rise, incomes remain flat

Let’s all pause for a moment and reflect on the fact that most Canadians have experienced very little wage mobility in the last five years. By contrast however, the cost of living sure hasn’t stagnated since 2012.

The best example of this is home prices in Canada. In January 2012, the average price of a residential dwelling in Canada (townhouses, condos, houses) was roughly $350,000. By June 2015, that number had risen by 30 percent to $450,000.

So, just so we are all clear, our incomes have risen three percent between 2012 and 2015,  but owning a home has gotten 30 percent more expensive in the same time period.

Rent data, a key factor in assessing the cost of living, doesn’t paint a much brighter picture of how unaffordable our country has become, especially large cities like Toronto and Vancouver.

It’s misleading to lump rent in all towns and cities across Canada into one category, but if you just take a look at Toronto, rents have climbed at least 30 percent since 2012.

Data from Urbanation, a website that has been tracking the Toronto condo market since 1981 estimates that the average rent for a 1 bedroom condominium in Toronto hovers at around $1990. Back in 2012, that number was perhaps $1600, maybe slightly less.

Of course, incomes in Toronto trend higher than the national average, but not nearly high enough to justify a 30 percent increase of the cost of owning or renting a home in the short span of four years.

Cheap credit fills the income-cost of living gap

The obvious question upon crunching income and cost of living data is how exactly have Canadians been purchasing homes or keeping up with rent? A big part of that answer is debt.

Household debt has climbed tremendously since 1981, but its steepest increase took place in the early 2000s — that trend continued when the Bank of Canada began its low interest rate policy, just after the 2008/2009 financial crisis. In 2011, Canadians owed $1.50 for every dollar they earned. As of 2016, we owe $1.67 for every dollar earned, the highest household debt to income ratio amongst G7 ratios.

(Just for the sake of comparison, back in 1990 when home prices were significantly lower, Canadians were in the black — they owed $90 dollars for every $100 earned).

In late 2016, the credit monitoring agency TransUnion came out with a report that pegged the average Canadian’s credit card debt at a three-year high of $3610.

Statistics Canada will only release the results of their 2016 income survey this time next year, but considering that home prices have climbed even more drastically in 2016, expect affordability to remain a serious issue for the next little while.

Trump’s election may be the second coming for teaching creationism

May 26, 2017 - 11:26am

One day in science class in 2014, C.C. Lane, then a sixth-grader at Negreet High School in Sabine Parish, Louisiana, came across a fill-in-the-blank question he didn’t know how to answer:

“ISN’T IT AMAZING WHAT THE _____ HAS MADE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

The answer was “Lord.”

Lane’s teacher, who had included the question on a test, also routinely told students that “evolution is impossible” and that the Bible is “100 percent true,” according to a lawsuit later filed by the ACLU of Louisiana, which was eventually settled.

Louisiana remains one of three states that protect teachers who bring religious ideas into the classroom. The states have all passed “academic freedom” laws inspired by Seattle-based think tank the Discovery Institute that allow the teaching of creationism and climate denial in schools’ curricula. Although the Discovery Institute calls itself a secular organization dedicated to promoting “thoughtful analysis,” critics say it’s been pushing a Christian agenda under the radar for more than a decade.

Since Donald Trump’s election and his appointment of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — who once called her work in education reform helping to “advance God’s kingdom” — a new wave of bills with verbatim ties to the Discovery Institute made inroads in statehouses across the country. Three of the bills had never come so close to becoming law.

“That kind of changed the landscape for the Discovery Institute and other religious-right groups,” said Barbara Forrest, a philosophy professor who studies creationism and church and state issues at Southeastern Louisiana University. “They now see opportunities that had been foreclosed to them prior to the election.”

In most states, teaching religion in public schools violates the separation of church and state. But “academic freedom” laws label established science, like climate change and evolution, “controversial issues,” which opens the door for teachers to offer alternatives, like climate denial and creationism.

“They now see opportunities that had been foreclosed to them prior to the election.”

Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee all have academic freedom laws on their books inspired by the Discovery Institute. This year, similar legislation was introduced in South Dakota, Texas, and Oklahoma. Though the bills didn’t pass, they gained more support than ever before. All three also took language directly from a mock bill the Discovery Institute posted online in 2007 with fill-in-the-blanks for state names and sponsors. The same key clause appears in each of them: that teachers can’t be prohibited from discussing “the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories,” like evolution and global warming. Over 70 academic freedom bills introduced in state legislatures since 2004 follow a near-exact word structure.

The Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, the program responsible for the mock bill, states its mission as advancing “the understanding that human beings and nature are the result of intelligent design.” It’s a pseudoscientific theory that an intelligent entity — in other words, God — created the universe and everything in it. Yet the Discovery Institute insists it’s a secular think tank. “For the record, our model legislation explicitly forbids any attempt to use the law to promote religion,” spokeswoman Sarah Chaffee said.

“What [the Discovery Institute is] really doing is trying to cover up what they’re really all about,”  said Frank Ravitch, a law and religion scholar at Michigan State University. “They’re trying to make it seem like it’s not about religion, it’s not about creationism, it’s not about intelligent design — [but] that’s the goal.”  

Zack Kopplin, an activist and journalist from Louisiana, has seen plenty of evidence that creationism is taught in public schools throughout the state, which passed its academic freedom law in 2008. He leaked emails from Louisiana teachers, school board members, and parents in 2015 that detail schools using Genesis as “supplemental material debunking various aspects of evolution.” And one fifth-grade teacher wrote in an op-ed that she’ll never teach children that they evolved from apes. “God made science, and unlike many adults, these kids KNOW that,” she wrote.

SOARING DONATIONS

While the Discovery Institute’s most recent tax forms aren’t publicly available, 2015 saw the highest ever revenue from contributions and grants: $5,773,002. That’s a jump of more than a $1 million from the year before. From  2011 to 2014, revenue had been decreasing alongside a stagnation in states adopting the institute’s mock bill.

The new money last year came alongside a presidential candidate who vowed to “protect Christianity.” After his election in November, Trump even named a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, Bill Walton, as a transition-team member for the Treasury Department.

For her part, Betsy DeVos has poured millions of dollars from both her own and her mother’s foundation to the Christian group Focus on the Family, which has worked with the Discovery Institute to pass academic freedom legislation in the past. One of Focus on the Family’s religious-right affiliates, the Louisiana Family Forum, provided the legislative muscle for passing Louisiana’s academic freedom bill in 2008. The Discovery Institute and Focus on the Family also co-produced one of the main educational videos about intelligent design, Unlocking the Mystery of Life.

The idea of teaching “intelligent design” has another powerful ally in the White House: Vice President Mike Pence, who in 2002 called intelligent design the only theory that “provides even a remotely rational explanation for the known universe.”.

“Now that we have recognized evolution as a theory, I would simply and humbly ask, can we teach it as such, and can we also consider teaching other theories of the origin of species?” then-congressman Pence said in a speech to the House of Representatives. And the same year he became a senator, now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the separation of church and state “unhistorical and unconstitutional.”

SEE YOU IN COURT, KID

Along with a favorable conservative political climate, the Discovery Institute’s carefully worded tactics are a key factor in the recent adoption of its mock bill. For example, the bill makes no mention of the words “creationism” and “intelligent design” and only permits, rather than requires, disparagement of evolution and global warming. Section D also makes it clear that the law “shall not be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine.”

That could make judges reluctant to rule against the laws as a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, according to Branch. “They’re going to say, ‘No, the only thing where we’re allowed to take account of is specifically what they said on the record with a straight face about their purpose,’” he said.

Since their adoption, none of the academic freedom laws have faced a direct legal challenge. In fact, the Discovery Institute was caught pushing a religious agenda only once — in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, one of the most high-profile legal cases ever about teaching evolution in 2005. According to the case, the Discovery Institute had advised a Pennsylvania school board that required teaching intelligent design as an alternative to evolution.

In its decision, the federal court called out the Discovery Institute’s religious agenda. “ID’s [intelligent design’s] backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class,” Judge John Jones wrote. “This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst, a canard.”

Even if future cases can prove the laws in Louisiana, Tennessee, or Mississippi also have religious intents, that likely won’t be the end of the fight.

“I would guarantee you if this gets struck down because of its connection to the Discovery Institute, some new think tank will come up that doesn’t have any sort of supposed connection,” Ravitch said. “And they’ll have some new proposed bill after. They’re not going to give up.”

Saudi Arabia may become an unlikely ally for Trump’s border wall

May 26, 2017 - 11:19am

Donald Trump wants to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure, a near-impossible sum to pull out of Congress. So he’ll take whatever he can get — even if it’s from the Saudis.

This comes at a good time for the petrostate as it attempts to move its income sources away from oil. And it’s starting huge.

The Saudis are throwing $2 trillion into a sovereign wealth fund that will invest in everything from technology to alternative energy to even American infrastructure. During Trump’s first overseas visit in Riyadh, the Kingdom committed to a $20 billion deal to update the U.S.’ aging infrastructure.

Saudi Arabia also knows a lot about infrastructure with massive walls built on both its northern and southern borders. In 2006, the Kingdom started work on a 600-mile double ditch wire fence on the Iraqi side to fend off terrorist attacks.

VICE News reports from Saudi Arabia’s armored wall.

Parents who don’t vaccinate their kids could end up paying thousands in Germany

May 26, 2017 - 11:02am

Germany is taking a tough stance against parents who don’t vaccinate their children in a bid to stem the outbreak of measles and other preventable diseases currently on the rise throughout Europe.

The German government is set to enact a law on June 1 that will require kindergartens to report parents who fail to follow vaccination guidelines to the authorities. Under the law, parents who do not provide their kindergartens with evidence that they’ve received advice from a doctor about vaccinating their children could face charges of up to 2,500 euros (equivalent to about $2,800). Though the German government strongly recommends that parents vaccinate their children, vaccinations remain voluntary. But some politicians have suggested that mandatory vaccination is on the way if concerted efforts to encourage vaccinations don’t work.

“Nobody can be indifferent to the fact that people are still dying of measles,” German health minister Hermann Gröehe told the Bild newspaper, according to Reuters. “That’s why we are tightening up regulations on vaccination.”

German courts also recently ruled that a father could have his child vaccinated over the opposition of the mother.

Countries across Europe have started taking greater measures to counteract a measles outbreak that’s partly attributable to a trend among parents to not vaccinate their children. This month, Italy made 12 vaccines compulsory among school-age children as a way to counteract a recent measles epidemic. More than 2,000 cases have been reported so far in 2017, eight times the number of total cases reported in 2015. Vaccinations for the virus have fallen off in Italy, with only 85 percent of children under the age of 2 receiving the vaccine, well below the World Health Organization’s recommendation of 95 percent. 

The trend of parents forgoing common childhood vaccines due to misinformation or distrust has stirred alarm among the medical and scientific community and is growing global health issue. One of the central culprits of this dangerous trend can be sourced back to a widely discredited and retracted 1998 study that claimed a common childhood vaccine for measles, mumps and other diseases could cause autism. The author of that retracted study, Andrew Wakefield, was barred from practicing medicine in Britain in 2010, both on scientific and ethical grounds.

Yet despite the mountains of evidence that vaccines don’t cause autism and are in fact safe, a cohort of parents in the U.S. and Europe continue to refuse common vaccinations for their children — often putting other children at risk of outbreaks. Earlier this month, advice pushed by anti-vaccine groups not to vaccinate children spread through a Somali community in Minnesota leading to the state’s largest measles outbreak in years. In Romania, doctors are coping with a measles outbreak that has recorded nearly 5,000 cases and 21 deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

In March, WHO was forced to issue a warning about Europe’s surging measles outbreak.

“With steady progress towards elimination over the past 2 years, it is of particular concern that measles cases are climbing in Europe,” WHO Regional Director for Europe Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab said.

How ISIS uses a mock news agency to claim credit for attacks

May 26, 2017 - 10:47am

By the morning after the Manchester bombing at the Ariana Grande concert that left 22 people dead and 64 injured, the Islamic State group had already claimed responsibility for the attack. While most people were posting their reactions to social media, another conversation was happening that wasn’t as public.

ISIS uses Telegram, an encrypted messaging app, to communicate with its members and supporters. Analysts and academics track these conversations for their research. So what goes on in the hours between an act of terror and the claiming of responsibility?

VICE News talked to the experts to see what they witnessed on the app this week, and what these claims are actually about.

 

 

ISIS expands its global battlefield to the Philippines

May 26, 2017 - 10:12am

The Philippines military deployed helicopters and special forces Friday amid fierce battles with Islamic State group-affiliated jihadists who have besieged the southern city of Marawi, in what one leading terror expert says is part of a bid to establish an ISIS province.

Clashes continued for the fourth day Friday, as government forces carried out air strikes in a bid to expel Maute clan militants from their positions in the city. Officials say more than 40 people were killed as militants rampaged through Marawi, taking local Christians as human shields, torching a church and government buildings, freeing prisoners from jail, and sparking a mass exodus of terrified residents.

“ISIS is shrinking in its battle space, in its heartland, but it’s decentralizing,” Rohan Gunaratna, head of Singapore’s International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, told VICE News. “This is the new structure of global jihad 3.0 – we will have the global expansion of ISIS.”

At least six foreign fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia have been found among the 31 rebels killed so far, further evidence that jihadists heeded a call from ISIS to join affiliated groups in the Philippines if they were unable to travel to Iraq or Syria.

Solicitor General Jose Calida told reporters Friday that what was happening in the city was “no longer a rebellion of Filipino citizens.”

“It has transmogrified into invasion by foreign terrorists, who heeded the call of the ISIS to go to the Philippines if they find difficulty in going to Iraq and Syria,” he said. “They want to make Mindanao part of the caliphate.”

In response, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has declared martial law over the entire southern island of Mindanao, where Marawi is located, and warned it could be applied to the rest of the country in a bid to stop the spread of radical Islam. The Philippines is largely Catholic, but the southern third of the country is home to a sizable Muslim minority and the government has battled for decades with multiple rebel groups fighting for an separate Islamic state in the south.

The crisis was sparked Tuesday when the army raided the local hideout of Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of ISIS-affiliated militant group Abu Sayyaf who has a $5 million U.S. State Department bounty on his head. In response, Hapilon called for the support of the Maute clan, an allied Islamist militia active in the region, whose gunmen rampaged through the town.

Gunaratna said the Maute clan, led by brothers Abdullah and Omar Maute, had about 300 fighters and was the strongest of four allied militant groups who had pledged allegiance to ISIS – about 1000 fighters in total. The Maute were blamed for a failed bombing in November near the U.S. embassy in Manila.

Hapilon, the leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group, had been appointed emir of all ISIS-affiliated forces in the Philippines by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last year, Gunaratna said. ISIS claimed responsibility Wednesday for the actions in Marawi via its Amaq news agency.

Gunaratna said the groups, previously al Qaeda-affiliated, had drifted towards ISIS’s more violent ideology in recent years. “Now they have become more barbaric and brutal like ISIS, they think that by doing this they can achieve their goals.” he said.

“It’s like violent pornography – they have highly visual violence”

Through the attack on Marawi, Gunaratna says the groups hope to demonstrate that they could seize and hold cities, and thus graduate from being an “emerging vilayat,” or region, of the caliphate, to becoming a fully declared province. “That’s why the Marawi fight is so important for them,” he said.

Officials are working to establish safe zones for Marawi residents left in the city, and supply them with provisions, as local shops remain shuttered amid the fighting. Other parts of Mindanao, including Duterte’s home city of Davao, are under high alert as authorities fear the militants could launch attacks. Jo-Ar Herrera, spokesman for the First Infantry Regiment told reporters that the military believed Hapilon was still at large in the city.

According to Gunaratna, the Philippines has become an increasingly critical training base for jihadists from around the world in recent years. A Belizean bombmaker was killed by government troops in January, and a Moroccan terrorist died in a firefight with the military in April last year. Gunaratna said Duterte’s concern about the growth of ISIS in the southern Philippines was warranted, but that martial law was unlikely to solve the problem. What the Philippines government needed was better equipment and training for its forces to effectively tackle ISIS, and closer intelligence-sharing with Western governments.

Previous raids on terror targets have gone disastrously awry. In 2015, a raid to kill or capture a master bomb maker known as Marwan resulted in the deaths of 44 elite police commandos in an ambush, although the target was also killed in the raid.

Trump’s week: a glowing orb, a sad pope, and “nutjob” Comey

May 26, 2017 - 10:11am
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Week 18, in one sentence: Donald Trump left for his first international trip as president just as news broke that he’d bragged about firing former FBI Director James Comey to the Russians; kinda-sorta bowed to the king of Saudi Arabia, something he mocked President Obama for doing; agreed to sell $110 billion in American weapons to Saudi Arabia; touched a mysterious glowing orb; went to Israel, where he denied revealing Israel as the source of the intelligence he leaked to Russia, something no one had accused him of ; put off funding Obamacare’s critical cost-sharing subsidies; managed to visibly disconcert the pope during a visit to Vatican City; released a $4.1 trillion budget proposal that slashes funding for programs for the poor (and relies on a giant math error); saw the second version of Trumpcare receive another dismal score from the CBO; called for an investigation into U.S. leaks of U.K. intelligence about the Manchester terrorist bombing; vowed to take the fight over his travel ban to the Supreme Court after an injunction against it was upheld; went to Brussels for a NATO meeting; shook hands with French President Emmanuel Macron so firmly that his knuckles turned white; and went to Italy for the G-7 Summit.

Two scoops (just like Trump likes) Day 12 — May 19

Trump’s Friday — like most days that week — took a turn in the afternoon when two news scoops broke just as Trump boarded a flight for his first trip abroad as president.

In an Oval Office meeting last week, Trump told Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador that firing “nutjob” FBI Director James Comey had relieved “great pressure because of Russia,” according to a document viewed by the New York Times. It’s the same meeting during which Trump reportedly revealed highly classified information to the same Russians.

Speaking of the “nutjob,” the Senate Intelligence Committee announced that Comey will testify in an open hearing before Congress about his firing.

On top of that, anonymous sources told the Washington Post that the probe looking into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia was closing in on a significant person in the White House.

Was that a … bow? Day 121 — May 20

As scandals swirled back home, Trump arrived in Saudi Arabia to much fanfare from the royal family, which bestowed a gold medal upon him, Saudi Arabia’s highest honor. Trump also kinda-sorta bowed/curtsied before Saudi King Abdullah, a gesture Republicans — including Trump himself — widely mocked Obama for doing in 2009. It was the president’s first stop on a nine-day excursion in five countries, and he didn’t waste time: Trump agreed to sell Saudi Arabia $110 billion in American weapons, a deal brokered by Jared Kushner.

“Drive them out”Day 122 — May 21

Trump delivered a much-anticipated address at the Arab Islamic American Summit in Saudi Arabia, which called on the Middle East to take a leadership role in the fight against terrorism in the region. Trump’s speech avoided the Islamophobic overtones of his campaign rhetoric and instead opted for a more measured tone. But the Muslim world isn’t convinced.

“Drive them out,” Trump said of Islamic extremists. “Drive them out of your places of worship. Drive them out of your communities. Drive them out of your holy land. Drive them out of this Earth.”

The day didn’t go without a hitch, though. Trump — along with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi — caused a stir on social media when they all simultaneously laid hands on a mysterious glowing orb. The scene sparked sci-fi memes, but the real meaning of the orb is much more innocuous: It’s apparently just a decorative globe that was part of an opening ceremony for the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Riyadh.

Back home, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster wouldn’t say if Trump called Comey a “nutjob” to the Russians — yet insisted that the comments were taken out of context.

The Donald doth protest too much?Day 123 — May 22

Trump continued his globe-trot and arrived in Israel for a largely successful visit, with one big hiccup. While addressing reporters with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump denied a Russia allegation that the press never made.

“Just so you understand, I never mentioned the word or the name ‘Israel,’ never mentioned it, during that conversation,” Trump said, referring to a meeting in which he revealed highly classified intelligence to the Russians. “They’re all saying I did, so you have another story wrong.”

Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser and the centerpiece of the Russia scandal, decided against complying with the Senate subpoena for documents related to Russian meddling in the 2016 election and will instead invoke the Fifth Amendment.

Trump’s Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross expressed surprise that Trump faced no protesters in Saudi Arabia, apparently unaware that people aren’t allowed to protest in Saudi Arabia.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave an official definition for “sanctuary cities” in a memo: jurisdictions that “willfully refuse to comply” with federal immigration law. While Trump’s executive order about withholding funding from these cities nodded at the law, it wasn’t specific. Sessions’ memo also limited the type of funding the federal government can take away — only money from the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security.

The Trump administration and Congress once again put off deciding whether to fund Obamcare’s cost-sharing subsidies, which reduce the deductibles and co-pays for a majority of Obamacare recipients. Without these subsidies, more insurers are likely to bail out of Obamacare exchanges.

Finally, a budgetDay 124 — May 23

The Trump administration finally released a line-by-line $4.1 trillion budget for fiscal year 2018 to Congress. It’s calling the document the “The New Foundation for American Greatness,” and the message is clear: Get a job, poor people. The budget would drastically slash federal money for programs for the poor, including $800 billion in cuts to Medicaid and $193 billion in cuts to food stamps over the next decade. Simultaneously, Trump wants to jack up defense spending and cut taxes. The goal is to sustain 3 percent growth, but economists are very skeptical that’s possible.

Trump briefly visited the West Bank and met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Trump urged peace between Israel and Palestine — without referring to a two-state solution.

“President Abbas assures me he is ready to work toward that goal in good faith,” Trump said in Bethlehem alongside Abbas. “And Prime Minister Netanyahu has promised the same.”

Former CIA Director John Brennan testified before the House intelligence committee that he had seen intelligence that made him question whether Russia was able to “gain the cooperation” of some Trump campaign staffers.

During the election, Trump attempted to persuade two high-ranking intelligence officials to say that there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia, according to new reports.

The CIA told some lawmakers sooner than we thought about Russia’s effort to undermine the U.S. election. Brennan was so worried that he began briefing top officials in Congress in August, according to the New York Times.

After a review, a standard process for complaints, the Federal Communications Commission decided against taking action against late-night TV host Stephen Colbert over his joke referring to Trump and Vladimir Putin engaged in a sexual act.

Trump decried the terrorist bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester that killed 22 and condemned the “evil losers” behind the attack.

Making the happiest pope sad Day 125 — May 24

Trump traveled to Vatican City and met Pope Francis, and the president seemed elated. The usually jovial pope, however, looked less than overjoyed. The duo spoke privately for 28 minutes.

The pope made an apparent joke about Trump’s weight to First Lady Melania Trump, asking her if she gave the president potizza, a Slovenian dessert, to eat. The president misheard and exclaimed “Pizza!”

Trump met yet another world leader, Italian President Sergio Mattarella, in Rome and praised Italy for its counterterrorism efforts.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released its analysis of the GOP Obamacare replacement, which the House passed without a CBO score. The analysis showed that 23 million people will lose insurance by 2026 under Trumpcare, fairly similar to the 24 million that would have lost health insurance under the GOP’s first attempt to replace Obamacare. The bill would save the government $119 billion over the next decade. The CBO also predicted that premiums for young, healthy people would go down but older people would see drastic increases.

Anonymous current and former intelligence officials told the Washington Post that a possibly phony Russian document heavily influenced Comey’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Apparently, the unreliable document posited that an understanding existed between Clinton’s campaign and the Justice Department that the email investigation wasn’t really going anywhere — which led to Comey’s rogue public announcement about reopening the probe during the election.

The travel ban stays blocked Day 126 — May 25

A federal appeals court ruled to uphold the injunction against Trump’s revised travel ban, which attempted to stop travel to the U.S. from six majority-Muslim countries. While the ban made no explicit references to Islam, 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory said the executive order “drips with religious intolerance, animus, and discrimination.”

The Trump administration plans to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, is now under scrutiny by the FBI in its probe of Russian interference in the U.S. election, according to multiple reports.

Trump addressed the leaders of fellow NATO members in Brussels, the latest stop on his world tour. He was expected to endorse Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty — which requires NATO members to come to the aid of allies who are under attack — but he failed to do so. Instead, he berated U.S. allies for not putting up their “fair share” of defense spending and later shoved Montenegro’s prime minister out of his way.

Trump blasted “alleged leaks” of sensitive information pertaining to the deadly terrorist bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, which killed 22 people and wounded dozens. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May complained to him in Brussels that U.K. and U.S. intelligence must remain secure. Trump urged the Justice Department to launch an investigation to weed out the leakers.

Trump met new French President Emmanuel Macron for the first time at the NATO summit, and the meeting was apparently tense. Their handshake was so intense that Trump’s knuckles turned white as he attempted to pull away from Macron’s grip.

In a speech to prosecutors and law enforcement in Memphis, Sessions again promised a crackdown on violent crime and illegal drugs.“Drugs and crime go together,” he said. It’s a stark reversal from Obama-era criminal justice reform. Sessions cited a viral video of a 6-year-old boy’s plea for an end to gun violence in his vow to revive a “tough on crime” era.

When Jared Kushner filled out his financial disclosure form with the Office of Government Ethics, he forgot something: his multimillion-dollar art collection. ArtNet, a large-scale website normally dedicated to buying and selling art, found the scoop after noticing his wife Ivanka Trump’s Instagram pictures with the works in the background.

Back to Italy Day 127 — May 26

Trump went back to Italy for the G-7 summit — a conference between world superpowers Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K., and the U.S. — where he’s expected to clash with U.S. allies on issues from climate change to the refugee crisis.

This week in POTUS’ tweets:

Just arrived in Italy for the G7. Trip has been very successful. We made and saved the USA many billions of dollars and millions of jobs.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 26, 2017

All civilized nations must join together to protect human life and the sacred right of our citizens to live in safety and in peace.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 23, 2017

Getting ready for my big foreign trip. Will be strongly protecting American interests – that's what I like to do!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 19, 2017

Gunmen kill dozens in attack on bus carrying Coptic Christians in Egypt

May 26, 2017 - 10:10am

Gunmen attacked a bus carrying Coptic Christians in Egypt Friday, killing at least 26 people and wounding 25 others, according to state media reports. The terror attack in central Egypt is the latest in a series of terror attacks that have targeted the country’s persecuted minority, and comes during a three-month state of emergency declared in April.  

The bus was carrying worshippers, many of them children, to the Monastery of St Samuel the Confessor when gunmen opened fire in a stretch of open, unmonitored road. They also fired on a pickup truck. Gunmen “shot people point-blank,” Bishop Makarios of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Minya Province told the New York Times.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, but ISIS has repeatedly targeted the religious minority, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population.

On December 11th, a bomb exploded in the main Coptic cathedral in Alexandria, killing at least 25 people. ISIS claimed responsibility for the bombing and released a video, vowing to step up their attacks on Egyptian Christians. In February, dozens of families left their homes in northern Sinai due to killings and intimidation. Then, on April 9th, Palm Sunday, bombs ripped through two Coptic churches, killing at least 49 people. ISIS claimed responsibility for that attack, too.

After the Palm Sunday attacks, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi declared a three-month state of emergency. The head of the Coptic church, Pope Tawadros II, has vocally supported el-Sisi’s government for its promise of security and stability. Security is indeed a central platform of el-Sisi’s government, yet Egypt has faced numerous bombings and terror attacks in the past several months alone.

Sisi has complained that the media has given too much attention to these attacks. The Egyptian government has cracked down on media outlets in recent months, blocking access to sites Al Jazeera, Mada Masr and 19 others,  for coverage it deems unfairly critical. 

Extremist terrorist organizations aren’t the only group targeting Egypt’s copts. They’ve been historically persecuted and scapegoated by the Egyptian state.

One of California’s 3,900 incarcerated firefighters died in the line of duty

May 26, 2017 - 7:48am

California currently employs roughly 3,900 non-violent offenders to put out wildfires, one inmate firefighter died Thursday in the line of duty.

Matthew Beck, 26, was leading a group attempting to contain a fire in the remote Hoopa Valley area of Northern California when a 120-foot tree uprooted and fell on him. He suffered fatal head, neck and back injuries and died at the scene according to California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Beck was convicted of burglary in 2014. He was serving a six-year prison sentence at one of California’s 43 fire camps. Beck was expected to be granted parole this October reported Reuters.  

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Conservation Camp program has been around since the 1940s. The dangerous, labor-intensive posting is made up entirely of volunteers and inmates make up about 20 percent of California’s fire crews.

Beck was the fourth inmate firefighter killed in the history of the program. Other deaths include a female inmate who died in Malibu last year after being struck by a loose boulder and an inmate who suffered a fatal heart attack while on the job in 2007.

For their contribution, Department of Corrections removes two days from the prisoner’s sentence for every day in camp. They are also paid $1.45 per day in camp, plus an additional $1 an hour for time on the fire line.

The program has faced controversy. A 2014 Buzzfeed article explored whether or not the program borders on slave labor, claiming the cheap workforce saves the state over $1 billion a year. The Department of Corrections says the savings actually add up to about $100 million annually for taxpayers.

One inmate Robert Lang spoke to CBS about the program in October.  

“I’m giving back to the community for what I did,” Lane said “We’re not really convicts on the back of this bus, we’re treated as firefighters,” he continued “It is a good feeling….it lets you know that you’re worth something.”

Trump is expected to clash with other world leaders at the G7 summit

May 26, 2017 - 7:26am

Donald Trump arrived in Italy Friday for his inaugural G7 summit, where he’s expected to clash with his fellow world leaders on topics like climate change, free trade, and the refugee crisis.

The summit is taking place on the island of Sicily — chosen specifically by newly-elected Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni in order to highlight the plight of the hundreds of thousands of migrants that continue to flood the island.

Just arrived in Italy for the G7. Trip has been very successful. We made and saved the USA many billions of dollars and millions of jobs.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 26, 2017

The White House administration has reportedly been resisting European attempts to make the plight of refugees the main focus of the meeting. According to a report in Foreign Policy, this push has come specifically from Steven Miller, the 31-year-old White House senior advisor and speechwriter, who instead wants world leaders to focus on the fight against terrorism — a topic given added weight following this week’s attack in Manchester.

At the opening of the summit Friday morning, European council president Donald Tusk said this year’s meeting was going to be “the most challenging G7 in years,” before pointedly focusing on the migrant crisis: “We have to keep this position that migration crisis is global issue, and not only local or regional, and I hope we will convince our new colleagues around the table that what we need today is solidarity at the global level.”

Tusk’s comments come in the wake of the White House’s recently released budget plan, which proposes deep cuts to U.S. foreign aid.

The G7 summit is the final stop on Trump’s first trip overseas as president. The tour kicked off in the Middle East, where he offered messages of peace, tolerance and inclusivity — but since arriving in Europe, the tone has been much more adversarial. On Thursday he berated his NATO allies for failing to pay their fair share, before shoving the prime minister of Montenegro out of his way for a photo op, and calling Germany “very bad” over its car sales to the U.S.

Trump is not the only leader making his debut at this G7 summit, with British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron and Gentiloni also making their first appearances. The major shake up in global politics in the last 12 months means that this weekend’s summit will see new relationships formed amongst the world’s most powerful leaders.

But Trump might not come away with many new friends. The president is likely to disagree with several leaders, not only about the migrant crisis, but also climate change and free trade.

Climate Change

During his election campaign, Trump said he would not stick to the pledges made by the Obama administration at the UN’s Paris climate change conference in 2015 — namely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent before 2025. But Trump has wavered on this promise since his election. Ahead of the summit, Trump’s economic advisor Gary Cohn said: “We know that the levels that were agreed to by the prior administration would be highly crippling to the U.S. economic growth,” though he added that Trump was “interested in what the G7 leaders have to say.”

Key to convincing Trump, according to one source speaking to the Guardian, will be showing the administration that developing renewable energy and technology will be a driver of economic growth and job creation — something that is a priority for Trump’s team.

Free Trade

On Thursday evening in Brussels, Trump made his feelings about free trade clear when he called Germany “bad, very bad” for running a trade surplus with the U.S. “Look at the millions of cars they’re selling in the U.S. Terrible. We will stop this,” he said.

Trump was asked about this comment on Friday morning, but ignored reporters’ questions. Trump’s protectionist stance is in stark contrast with those held by other G7 leaders who are hoping to get the U.S. president to agree to a trade deal in which WTO rules are respected.

North Korea

One area where Trump is in broad agreement with his G7 colleagues is over the danger posed by North Korea’s increasingly sophisticated nuclear weapons technology. On Friday, Trump said he was looking forward to discussing the issue with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, saying: “It’s a big problem. It’s a world problem. And it will be solved at some point. It will be solved. You can bet on that.”

This last weekend could be the last chance to convince America to stay in the Paris climate agreement

May 26, 2017 - 7:00am

President Donald Trump will face intense pressure from America’s closest allies to remain in the Paris Climate Agreement when he meets with the G7 group of global leaders in Italy this weekend. The White House is already sending signals that he could be open to reversing his position and remaining in the agreement.

Trump spent both the primary and general elections vowing to rip up the Paris accord, calling it “bad for business.” But influential White House economic advisor Gary Cohn told reporters Thursday that Trump would be open to hearing from the EU and Canada on the matter.

“The president has told you that he’s going to ultimately make a decision on Paris and climate when he gets back,” Cohn said aboard Air Force One, according to AFP. “He’s interested to hear what the G7 leaders have to say about climate.”

Press secretary Sean Spicer confirmed that Trump is expected to announce his decision after the G7 meetings in Taormina, Italy. A spokesperson for the State Department told VICE News that there is currently no timeline for a decision.

That makes the multilateral meetings all the more important for the deal, hence the full-court press by America’s Western allies.

During a NATO meeting in Brussels this week, French President Emmanuel Macron urged Trump to stay in the agreement. “My wish is that the United States takes no hurried decision,” Macron told reporters after the meeting. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said earlier this week she would add her voice to the effort. “I am still trying to convince the doubters,” she said Tuesday.

Canadian Prime minister Justin Trudeau will also join the effort to coax Trump into staying in the Paris agreement, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters Friday in Taormina. “We believe climate change is one of the greatest threats facing Canadians and the world, and it is a threat which is a global threat and which needs global solutions,” Freeland said.

TWEET

The 2015 Paris agreement, the world’s first comprehensive climate agreement, has been ratified by 195 nations, and aims to hold global warming to well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels in order to significantly reduce the fast pace of climate change, and make the world’s nations better able to adapt to a warming planet.

If Trump does decide to pull out of the deal, it would be quite easy: The administration could remove the country from the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that set up the Paris agreement. To leave the Paris Agreement itself, America would have to wait the minimum three years stipulated in its text.

If the U.S. — the world’s second-largest emitter responsible for 18 percent of global greenhouse gases — pulls out of the agreement, it could tank the historic deal, making it politically acceptable for other countries to shirk their commitments.

Back home, the politics of the deal remain divisive. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer told reporters that withdrawing from the deal would be a “a historic misstep that would massively disadvantage both American businesses and diplomats and our environment.” Some 40 Senate Democrats sent a letter to the president to that end, encouraging him to remain in the agreement.

A letter in response, from 20 Republican congressmen who urged the President to pull out, urged to the president to “make a clean exit from the Paris agreement so that your administration can follow through on its commitment to rescind the Clean Power Plan.”

Cohn, even as he said the president would be open to hearing from his European and Canadian allies, told AFP that that Obama administration’s climate commitments “would be highly crippling to the U.S. economic growth.”

Trump’s own head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, is an avowed enemy of the deal, telling Fox & Friends in April that “Paris is something that we need to really look at closely. It’s something we need to exit in my opinion.”

GOP candidate charged with assaulting reporter wins Montana special election

May 25, 2017 - 11:54pm

Wealthy Republican businessman Greg Gianforte won Montana’s House special election Thursday night, handily defeating Democrat Rob Quist — despite being charged with assaulting a reporter the day before.

The special election for the seat vacated by now-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke drew attention and millions of dollars from both parties for the past several weeks. But the incident Wednesday that resulted in Gianforte allegedly assaulting Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, breaking his glasses, and sending him to the hospital instantly changed the tone of the entire election.

Three of Montana’s biggest newspapers rescinded their pro-Gianforte endorsements. The DCCC, House Democrats’ campaign arm, released an ominous digital ad with Gianforte’s face in black-and-white and the tagline, “Charged with a crime. No business being in Congress.” House Speaker Paul Ryan called on Gianforte to apologize, saying, “I do not think this is acceptable behavior.” (VICE News’ Josh Tyrangiel, executive vice president of content, news, also released a statement condemning the alleged assault.) And despite a Wednesday statement where Gianforte’s campaign spokesperson blamed “aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist” for the incident, Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault, which carries a fine of up to $500, six months in jail, or both.

A Fox News team of reporters also later backed up Jacobs’ account of what happened, but the alleged attack appeared to have little effect on the election, where more than half of the registered Montana voters were estimated to have already returned their ballots by the time news of the incident broke. The Montana Secretary of State, asked if any Montanans had sought to change their vote in the wake of the “body-slamming,” told VICE News that only reporters had bothered to call and find out if this was even possible.

Still, the Montana race — like the special elections in deep-red Kansas and Georgia districts earlier this year, which also resulted in Democratic losses — proved surprisingly competitive for a seat held exclusively by Republicans for nearly two decades. Democrats had sought to capitalize on the unpopularity of President Donald Trump and the American Health Care Act to propel Quist, a banjo-playing folksinger and Montana native known throughout the state, to victory. Quist raised more than $6 million to fund his campaign, include $1 million in the last week of the campaign alone. Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, even flew in to campaign for Quist last weekend.

National Republicans, however, proved equally dedicated to keeping the seat. President Donald Trump, who won Montana by more than 20 points last November, recorded robo-calls for Gianforte, as did Vice President Mike Pence. Both Pence and presidential son Eric Trump also hopped onstage at Gianforte’s campaign events. And before Gianforte’s alleged assault, this strategy appeared to be working: Three Gravis-conducted polls showed Gianforte leading comfortably, according to Real Clear Politics. And that lead held strong Thursday night — he finished about 7 points ahead of Quist.

For-profit jail accused of ignoring dying inmate’s cries for help

May 25, 2017 - 11:00pm

“I can’t breathe.”

That’s what Michael Sabbie told corrections officers nearly 20 times, as he lay gasping and heaving for breath in the hallways of a private jail in July 2015 — just hours before officers found him dead in his cell. His death was later ruled to be from natural causes, but in a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday, Sabbie’s family accuse the jail and several of its employees of violating the 35-year-old’s civil rights and ultimately causing his death through “deliberate indifference” to his medical needs.

Sabbie, who was jailed after a verbal domestic dispute with his wife, told intake staff at Texas’ Bi-State Justice Center that he “suffered from heart disease, asthma, hypertension, diabetes, and other medical conditions,” according to the lawsuit, conditions for which he took several prescription medications. But in the three days that Sabbie waited in jail, he allegedly never received that medication and was never properly medically evaluated.

By the time Sabbie, who was black, showed up in court to plead “not guilty” to a misdemeanor assault charge days later, court officials apparently noticed that Sabbie was struggling to breathe and sweating. But it was after that court appearance that Sabbie’s condition appeared to deteriorate markedly.

That deterioration was caught on two separate videos.

The first, which lacks sound and was apparently shot by a jail hallway camera, appears to begin as Sabbie and several other prisoners are being led back from court. Sabbie stops and leans forward, seemingly struggling to breathe, as an officer approaches him. Sabbie walks away from the officer, who grabs him roughly and throws him to the ground. Several other officers pile on top of Sabbie.

The second video, which does have sound and is shot on a handheld camera to document the use of force, starts soon afterwards. An officer sprays Sabbie with what the lawsuit alleges is pepper spray. Then Sabbie, who repeatedly tells corrections officers, “I can’t breathe,” is taken to a room marked “medical.” A woman who appears to be a nurse examines Sabbie for less than a minute, though an officer’s body obscures from the camera what exactly the examination consists of.

Sabbie gasps for breath almost constantly throughout the video; his heaving is audible even when he’s buried under the pile of corrections officers. At one point, while in the shower — which he was shepherded into for “decontamination,” one of the officers claims on video — Sabbie even appears to collapse unconscious.

The video ends after officers lead Sabbie back to his cell, or “pod.” According to the lawsuit, a corrections officer was assigned to check in on Sabbie throughout the night, but failed to do so and falsely claimed she did.

“His body was stiff and cold to the touch. It is not yet known how long Mr. Sabbie lay dead while jail staff ignored him,” the lawsuit reads. “However, had defendants summoned appropriate medical care at any point before his death, Mr. Sabbie could have been saved and would still be alive today.”

“The failure to secure needed medical care for Mr. Sabbie was motivated by constitutionally impermissible profit-driven reasons,” it adds. LaSalle Corrections, the Bi-State Justice Center’s operator and one of the defendants named in the lawsuit, did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment. Other defendants named in the lawsuit, which is seeking unspecified damages, include several of the corrections officers involved in Sabbie’s death, Texas’ Bowie County, and the city of Texarkana, Arkansas.

Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department moved to end its use of private prisons. In February, Attorney General Jeff Sessions signaled his plans to bring them back.

One of the Sabbie family’s lawyers, Erik Heipt, told NBC News that the question of whether race played a role in Sabbie’s death will be examined as the lawsuit progresses. But his final words — ”I can’t breathe” — are the same as Eric Garner’s, a black American who died in 2014 after being put in a chokehold by a New York Police Department officer.

Reporter allegedly assaulted by GOP candidate says official explanation was a lie

May 25, 2017 - 8:34pm

The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs may have become a factor in how Montanans vote today.  Residents head to the polls to decide who will become the state’s next member of the House of Representatives.

Last night, after Jacobs asked the republican candidate Greg Gianforte a question, the candidate allegedly lost his temper and “body slammed” the reporter.  Gianforte was quickly charged with misdemeanor assault.

The campaign claimed it was Jacobs’ aggressive behavior that landed him on the ground.  But when Jacobs talked to VICE News today, he pushed back on that. “It wasn’t a private office it was an open, open space. That there wasn’t, you know, a door that I pushed through or crawled through a window… This was a public event,” Jacobs said.

He is attempting to extricate himself from the story as much as possible. “It’s not about me,” Jacobs said. “This is about reporters being able to ask basic policy questions of candidates on important issues of the day and be able to…expect to not get violently assaulted in the course of doing that.”

While all of this could affect the way some people vote today, more than a third of registered voters in Montana had already cast their mail-in ballots before the incident happened.

The Bubble Is Deflating

May 25, 2017 - 4:31pm

Less than two months ago, Toronto’s housing market was roaring. Just a single new listing on the market, especially of single-detached homes, would send buyers into a feeding frenzy, clamouring over each other to view properties and upping their bids by as much as 30 to 40 percent in some cases.

“I’ve never ever seen a surge like this before.”

 

Sure enough, in February this year, Toronto home prices, which have been on a steady increase since mid-2014, reached a ridiculous high — a 25 percent spike from the year before. There are many reasons for that, but what stood out that month was the utter dearth of homes available for sale. February saw just 9834 new homes come onto the market, a 12.5 percent decrease from the year before. In January, there were 7338 new listings on the market, down by 17.6 percent from the year before.

Then in late April, in a move that some say was unnecessary and politically-motivated, the Ontario government intervened to cool the housing market, by slapping a 15 percent tax on foreign buyers, whom they believe were using the rising market to engage in speculative activities. That rule came alongside 15 other new regulations under Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Fair Housing Plan.

Soon after, there seemed to be a sudden surge in the number of residential real estate listings in Toronto and nearby towns like Barrie and Newmarket.

“There were 140-plus listings in the downtown core alone earlier this week. I’ve never ever seen a surge like this before,” said David Fleming, a Toronto-based realtor with Bosley Real Estate.  “April was a weird month too — we suddenly started seeing all this inventory creep onto the market.”

Figures from the Toronto Real Estate Board show that new listings shot up by 33.6 percent in April, compared to April 2016. Indeed, in the real estate world, it’s not too unusual for inventory to spike in Spring — that’s traditionally the season where sellers emerge from winter hibernation.

What’s odd though, is the fact that the number of listings that have come onto the market, based on anecdotal evidence alone, seems to be much higher than usual. “There was one and half months of inventory in the GTA in the first two weeks of May alone,” said Lauren Haw, CEO of Zoocasa, one of Canada’s biggest real estate websites.

“I think there’s a change in the psychology of home buyers and sellers, ever since the government intervened.”

Could this be the first sign of a cooling market?

Although Toronto’s real estate market has clearly been in bubble territory for at least the last year, the fundamentals that drive home price movement still apply. The higher the supply of homes available for sale, the more options people have, and the lower prices will be.

Granted, in a city as vibrant, safe and populated as Toronto, you’re not going to see prices go down anytime soon. But an increase in the number of listings is a clear sign that the lunacy of homes selling for up to 40 percent above their asking price, might be over.

“I think there’s a change in the psychology of home buyers and sellers, ever since the government intervened,” Bruce Joseph of Anthem Mortgages told VICE Money. “Perhaps the big cash out is at play now, people listing their homes and wanting to sell because they think prices are going to go down.”

Buyers too, seem to think prices are may taper off. One buyer, Oakville resident Vijayalakshmi Govindasamy was surprised to see that open houses in her neighbourhood were deserted. “I went to view three properties in Oakville over the weekend. In the first house, there were only two other people. In the second and third houses, I was the only interested buyer.”

Govindasamy says that she was told by one of the realtors present to make an offer for “even just $1 million”, despite the fact that the said home, a single-detached house, was being listed for $1.4 million. “Why are people desperate to sell in a supposedly hot market?”

Joseph, a mortgage broker in Barrie, Ontario, has long believed that Toronto and its surrounding towns never had a supply problem. “That’s just what real estate players want you to believe. Our home ownership rate is one of the highest in the world. If you just go on Kijiji, you’ll see that there is no lack of places for people to live in.”

So what then, prompted the freeze in listings earlier this year? Joseph’s theory is that it was a result of intervention by the Federal government in the mortgage market back in October, where lending requirements rules were aggressively tightened.

“My speculation, and it’s just speculation, is that nobody was listing their properties because there was this change in credit availability. People got spooked. They felt it was best to just hold on to whatever they had at that point.”

“It’s one of these situations where the new rules have created certain perceptions.”

May data from the Toronto Real Estate Board will be released early next month. The figures will be crucial in piecing together the extent to which federal and provincial intervention in Toronto’s housing market worked in slowing down the home price momentum.

“In the past, a house listed for $799,000 would have easily sold for $1.1 million. But now, and this is somewhat confusing to me, people are holding back offers, meaning that they are not in a hurry to have buyers submit an official bid for their home,” said Toronto realtor Fleming.

There is no one answer to the question of whether the housing market in Toronto is cooling. What’s evident at this point, is there is a high degree of trepidation in market — buyers are waiting to see if prices might actually go down, some sellers are worried that prices may go down and are desperate to sell, while others are holding out, banking on the usual uptick in Spring season sales.

“It’s one of these situations where the new rules have created certain perceptions, and those perceptions almost have the effect of cooling the market more than the rules themselves,” said Lauren Haw of Zoocasa.

“At some point the growth rate (of home prices) will have to come down. There might be a couple of years of flat growth or no growth, but the fundamentals of the market have not changed enough for home prices to decline.”

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Changes to Canada’s Indian Act could give up to 2 million people Indian status

May 25, 2017 - 1:30pm

The Liberal government is planning to reject an amendment to the Indian Act proposed by the Senate that could give as many as two million Indigenous people Indian status.

The Indian Act dates back to 1876, and has been described as a fundamentally racist document.

Two years ago, a Quebec court ordered the government to make changes to the act, after finding that it had, for decades, discriminated against women.

The act has always allowed men with Indian status who married non-status women before to pass their Indian status to their grandchildren and beyond. But the act, historically, stripped status from status women who married non-status men, and their children, until it was changed in 1985. That gendered distinction has withheld Indian status from thousands, if not millions, of First Nations people.

The Indian Act dates back to 1876, and has been described as a fundamentally racist document.

While the act has been updated several times over the past hundred years, there are still First Nations people who do not have status because of the historical language from the act. To try and rectify that — and to satisfy the court ruling — the Trudeau government introduced a bill S-3 into the Senate. Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett told the Senate committee that she envisioned the legislation offering Indian status to some 35,000 First Nations people in Canada.

The bill aimed to offer Indian status to anyone descended from those who were either denied status, or who lost their status, before changes were introduced to the act in 1985. The changes will primarily apply to the children and grandchildren of women who lost their status after marrying a non-Indian man and to those born out of wedlock.

The government’s changes only apply to certain Indigenous people who were denied their status between 1951 and 1985 and, by extension, their children and grandchildren.

“If we stay under the Indian Act for status, within 50 years there will be no more status Indians in Canada.”

But the Senate wanted the legislation to go further, and introduced amendments aimed at removing those distinctions for descendants of men and women who married non-Indians before 1951, going back to the 1800s. Those amendments still need to be approved by the whole Senate chamber.

Another amendment made to the bill, introduced by Senator Murray Sinclair, would require the government to offer status to applicants based on the evidence in front of them, “without being required to establish the identity of that parent, grandparent, or other ancestor.”

Indian status under the act offers increased autonomy for First Nations peoples, and ostensibly includes local decision-making on control of their land, education, and resources — though the extent to which that is actually the case is a matter of debate, and a source conflict with the federal government. The act does not cover Inuit and Métis peoples, and many Indigenous people believe the act ought to be scrapped altogether, and replaced with a more modern document that guarantees more autonomy.

Bennett told the committee that the proposal could mean bill S-3 would apply to “hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of new people and radically alter the composition of communities.” The government’s estimates, sent to the Globe & Mail, put that number at anywhere between 80,000 and two million.

While she noted the “many potential inequities not addressed in this bill,” Bennett added that the planned changes “absent adequate consultation and without knowing the practical implications beforehand would be irresponsible, and we will not be able to accept such an amendment.”

The clock is now ticking down, and a showdown between the two houses of Parliament appears to be looming.

An extension granted by the Superior Court of Quebec gave the government until July 3, 2017 to fix the issues with the Indian Act. If they don’t, a crucial part of the Indian Act will be inoperable, meaning the government won’t be able to offer new status to a huge swath of First Nations people.

But, for the government to meet that deadline, both the House of Commons and the Senate — which has been exercising its independence in recent months — will need to agree on the text of the bill. 

These changes are not just tinkering — as Perry Bellegarde, National Chief for the Assembly for First Nations, pointed out to the committee in November, it is a matter of continuing the very concept of First Nations identity.

“If we stay under the Indian Act for status, within 50 years there will be no more status Indians in Canada,” Bellegarde said, calling it “a totally racist, discriminatory act.”

“It would appear that now that you are government, you’re no longer supporting that position.”

Denise Stonefish, Deputy Grand Chief with the Assembly of First Nations, said the government’s legislation simply exacerbates the problem.

“The basic approach of this bill is to continue arbitrary federal control over First Nations identity and push the residual gender-based discrimination down one generation,” Stonefish, who also chairs the assembly’s women’s council, told the Senators.

The Assembly of First Nations supports broadening the legislation, but urged caution and consultation.

Sinclair pointed out during the committee hearings that the Liberal Party itself proposed an amendment that would allow people who had been discriminated against in the past to be able to register under the bill.

“It would appear that now that you are government, you’re no longer supporting that position,” said Senator Murray Sinclair.

Bennett said while in opposition, the Liberals were able to “propose where we haven’t really understood all of the implications, or we haven’t had the resources to go and do the kind of consultation that is required.

“So, I wouldn’t say we have changed our minds,” she said. “I would just say that, as government, we have to do the due diligence and due the proper consultation.”

The government has committed to consider further changes to the Indian Act, on broader issues related to Indian registration, band membership and citizenship.

While they haven’t been finalized, the issues on the table will likely include things like other distinctions in Indian registration, issues relating to adoption, as well as unstated or unknown paternity.

How an 18-year-old gamer went from neo-Nazi to Muslim to alleged killer

May 25, 2017 - 1:26pm

On Friday night, Devon Arthurs, an 18-year-old with no criminal record, ran into a smoke shop in Tampa, Florida, took people there hostage, and said he was angry about America bombing Muslim countries. According to a police report, Arthurs waved a semiautomatic pistol and yelled “Do me a favor and get the fuck on the ground!” He asked a customer, “Why shouldn’t I kill you?”

Police arrived and soon convinced Arthurs to let the hostages go. But when an officer asked if anyone else was hurt, Arthurs said his roommates weren’t hurt — they were dead.

When police took Arthurs to his nearby apartment, they found Jeremy Himmelman, 22, and Andrew Oneschuk, 18, dead from gunshot wounds to the head and chest. They also found Brandon Russell, dressed in his Florida National Guard uniform, crying.

“That’s my roommate,” Arthurs told police when they came upon Russell. “He doesn’t know what’s going on and just found [our other roommates] like you guys did.”

The killings, which slowly made their way into the national news this week, look like a case study in the online radicalization of young men. All four of the roommates were brought together by a neo-Nazi ideology developed in online chatrooms. Police discovered explosives and a device that could be used as a detonator in the apartment’s garage, which Russell said belonged to him; he was arrested Sunday on federal charges. The explosive materials were found only because Arthurs went from a neo-Nazi to a radical Islamist to an alleged killer in just over a year.

Two weeks earlier, Himmelman and Oneschuk had moved from Massachusetts into the apartment with Arthurs and Russell. They’d previously all become friends while playing video games and hanging out in chatrooms on platforms like Tinychat, Discord, and Skype, according to members of those chatrooms. The four were members of a white nationalist online group called Atomwaffen — German for “atomic weapon.” (Himmelman’s sister, Lyssa Himmelman, told the Tampa Bay Times that claims her brother was a neo-Nazi were “lies.”)

“People made fun of his religious beliefs a lot and I believe this was him finally pushing back.”

The roommates had, in the parlance of that part of the internet, “edgy” politics. But over the last year, Arthurs had begun to make his online friends uncomfortable. Though he still hung out in the same rooms, his interests had shifted from national socialism to Salafism, an ultraconservative form of Sunni Islam. He’d converted, changing his screen name from Weissewolfe to Kekman Al-Amriki. The first name, Kekman, is a reference to 4chan slang; the second echoes the name of an American member of the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab.

Arthurs had no mortgage, no Facebook profile, and virtually no presence on the internet — at least, not under his given name. But he left a 4-year-long trail showing his shift from teen gamer to neo-Nazi to radical Islamist. VICE News communicated with nine members of chatrooms he frequented in addition to alt-right activists who were aware of Atomwaffen, and read sections of old online chat transcripts with Arthurs and Russell, along with screenshots of private chats among their friends after the crime. Together, they all served to piece together Arthurs’ online extremist evolution.

* * *

Russell and Arthurs were the leaders of Atomwaffen and best friends, according to those who knew them. But about a year ago, Arthurs converted to Salafism, an ultraconservative version of Sunni Islam, and had begun to defend ISIS online. Members of Atomwaffen were wary of having a Muslim in their midst, but Russell defended Arthurs.

“When you hear the word radicalization, what usually comes to mind is young people turning to Islamic fundamentalism,” academic researchers Alice Marwick and Becca Lewis wrote on the site Select/All days before the killing. “ISIS has a host of YouTube channels, chat rooms, and Twitter accounts that are extremely effective at channeling the energy of disaffected and disenfranchised young people. But the far right is doing virtually the same thing — and possibly even more effectively.”

Marwick and Lewis argue that once a community becomes open to one form of extremism, it’s easier for other forms to be introduced. “Some sci-fi, fandom, and gaming communities — having accepted run-of-the-mill anti-feminism — are beginning to espouse white-nationalist ideas.”

According to his friends, Arthurs moved along that same path.

“He went from communist to national socialism to hyper-pragmatic capitalism to full ISIS,” said James, a 20-year-old “American nationalist” who met Arthurs on Tinychat several years ago. James said Arthurs found the American far right to be “soft… because groups like ISIS actually do murder homosexuals etc. and take action, while our group had multiple LGBT individuals.”

“Life isn’t politics 24/7. He and his friends enjoyed playing the same video games. It was fun to have him around.”

“We all connected in the sense that we were introverts that didn’t really connect with the ‘outside’ world,” explained Catherine, a member of a group of friends who came together in a Tinychat room beginning in 2013. Many came to the chat rooms from 4chan and 8chan, message boards that are totally anonymous. In Tinychat, users show their faces, or at least use screen names, so it’s easier to make friends and follow who is saying what over time.

The group of about a dozen mostly young people became close; when one of them committed suicide about a year ago, Arthurs and Russell were both inconsolable. Arthurs helped organize the group to contact the friend’s parents and tell them how much he was missed.

Eventually, the friends got the urge to move into the real world. “Tinychat was just for chatting online,” said a friend who goes by Nero. “[Arthurs and Russell] met there and became friends and they wished to build some sort of real-life community, real-life activism so all their time didn’t go to waste doing nothing and chatting online.”

That’s how the Florida chapter of Atomwaffen came to be. The group formed on Ironmarch, a fascist forum that’s part of the tapestry of far-right sites that expressed rabid support of Donald Trump. Atomwaffen has 50 members at most, and several people in the Tinychat group said they didn’t take Atomwaffen too seriously.

“Most of our [Tinychat] group saw them as a bunch of goofy kids,” according to James. Atomwaffen put up neo-Nazi fliers and stickers and had a YouTube channel. They made flags and posed with guns.

In April, Russell posted photos of their urban exploration trip, writing, “A few of us in Florida explored this abandoned Juvenile Detention Centre on Hitler’s birthday this year.” The captions have the discordant tone of white supremacist Boy Scouts.

“[Russell] once told me it was one of his favorite hobbies aside from national socialism,” Selina Ortiz, who frequently chatted with the pair, said of the urban exploration.

When they heard I’d been asking around about Russell, several of his friends messaged me to praise his character. Friends described Russell’s childlike love of scientific experimentation. Russell can be seen in a “backyard scientist” YouTube video making a watermelon explode, and in a Skype chat from 2014, he talked about building a rocket. Friends insist that the explosive material found by the FBI was pure scientific inquiry.

According to police, however, Arthurs said Russell had participated “in online neo-Nazi internet chat rooms where he threatened to kill people and bomb infrastructure.”

Russell “was tied to some very hardcore beliefs but had a heart of gold,” James said. “He said a bunch of shit but wouldn’t hurt a fly. He just got sucked in.”

In a world defined in part by merciless trolling, Russell appeared to be extremely sensitive. “People would go in and make fun of him and he would cry and become visibly upset,” Catherine, a Tinychat user, said. “There were memes with screencaps of him looking sad in the camera like ‘I’M MASTERRACE—PLEASE BE MY FWEND.’ Was pretty funny tbh. But it got to him.’”

She continued: “He’s a tender emotional kid, just not too mentally stable and got messed up with the wrong people and didn’t have a good father figure. I don’t condone his opinions or beliefs or justify them whatsoever, he just wasn’t all hatred and scorn.”

“He always hopped around ideologies. National socialism and Islam both offer a strong worldview — very masculine, very optimistic.”

After the shootings, according to screenshots sent to me, friends talking among themselves expressed frustration, particularly regarding the explosives. In one Discord chat, a friend complained, “He fucked up keeping that material around.”

Most of the friends from Tinychat were less complimentary of Arthurs — something was “not quite right.” Screenshots show Arthurs “awkwardly,” in his own words, thanking friends for helping him through depression. Friends say they encouraged him to focus on family and getting a job, and to cool off on the radical politics for a bit. They told him Atomwaffen was bad news.

According to friends, Arthurs converted to Islam a little more than a year ago. “It’s hard for me to say it straight up like this, since I considered him to be one of my closest friends at some point,” said a member of Atomwaffen. “I even was shitposting with him as recently as 12 hours before this all went down. But I think he was always unstable, and this Salafism shit got to his head more than anything.”

Another 18-year-old alt-right activist told me, “He’s always been hopping around ideologies…. He wanted to feel like he belonged to something strong…. National socialism and Islam both offer a strong worldview — something very masculine, something very optimistic. Conquest and all that.”

While Arthurs did lose some friends after his conversion, others remained close to him. “Life isn’t politics 24/7,” Nero explained. “They enjoyed playing the same video games, and although I really dislike Devon for what he did, he was a very charismatic and funny guy at times. It was fun to have him around.”

* * *

In transcripts of chats, Arthurs blends alt-right ideas with Islam. “Any state that allows adultery or any other form of degeneration is not worth fighting or dying for.” “Degeneracy” is an alt-right fixation meaning nontraditional sexual mores.

According to screenshots of a Skype chat, Arthurs was disgusted by American culture. “See, I wouldn’t be so mad, if it wasn’t for the fact you literally have millions of western cuckolds ready to defend ‘freedom.’ The freedom for their daughters to be pimped out by pornographic distributors, freedom for their wives to be banged by countless guys while they are home, freedom to have their kids innocence be robbed.”

He also talked about about “white sharia,” which has become an alt-right meme — women are ruining society, the thinking goes, so the only way to fix it is to brutally oppress them. At times, friends say, Arthurs threatened violence.

“He was serious about this. People made fun of his religious beliefs a lot and I believe this was him finally pushing back,” Nero said.

How much of the alt-right’s racism is ironic — and whether that matters — has been much debated over the last year. In an infamous 2016 Breitbart article, Milo Yiannopoulos wrote, “Are they actually bigots? No more than death metal devotees in the ’80s were actually Satanists. For them, it’s simply a means to fluster their grandparents…. They have no real problem with race-mixing, homosexuality, or even diverse societies. It’s just fun to watch the mayhem and outrage that erupts when those secular shibboleths are openly mocked.”

Atomwaffen is far to the right of the alt-right. Many of Russell’s friends said he would never hurt someone, that he might condemn “sodomites” even while having gay friends. But it seems Arthurs took it seriously.

“Arthurs also stated that, before the murder, he had been privy to neo-Nazi Internet chat sites threatening to kill people,” according to a Tampa police statement, “and he had developed a thinking that he should take some of the neo-Nazis with him.”

Some alt-right types have suggested the killings show the danger of Islam. At the neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer, Andrew Anglin wrote, “Talk about a narrative collapse. The Jews are trying to say we’re the same as Moslem terrorists. Meanwhile, Nazis are converting to Islam and then killing their old Nazi friends.”

An Atomwaffen member claimed to have worked on personal security for Richard Spencer, the man who coined the term “alt-right.” An alt-right military veteran who has organized security for Spencer told me he would not associate with Atomwaffen, but I asked Spencer if he knew anything about the group.

“Muslims are psychos,” he replied. “Even the White ones.”

Several people from the Tinychat group contacted me fearing a spin on the story. “There’s some sort of narrative being crafted that they were all virgin nerds and that is the cause of voilent [sic] crime and national socialism,” one said. Yet he added that Arthurs and Russell “were drawn to that stupid shit becuase [sic] they never had proper father figures.”

I was sent screenshots of conversations between members, then screenshots of my conversations with members were sent to the private group chat, and in turn, screenshots of those screenshots were sent back to me. One guy said he wanted to make Arthurs “look gay.”

While they were attempting to control the narrative of this story, amongst themselves there were recriminations. “Somebody should have literally stepped up to the plate and been a father figure.” And: “We ignored the fact that cray [crazy] combined with crazy ideology doesn’t go well.” Someone claimed Arthurs had talked to ISIS members on Telegram, a chat app famously used by ISIS. Another responded: “Why the fuck didn’t you report him if you knew that?”

“Frustrated young men do crazy stuff. Why do you think ISIS is so popular?” Ortiz said. “I know testosterone is just a hell of a hormone.”

I asked, in several different ways, if the friends could have anticipated Atomwaffen would end in violence. They answered with a compassion that’s missing in their memeing.

“If you’re looking to make a hit piece on two people that were killed in cold blood then I think we’re done here,” Nero said. His friends had wanted to create a “proper community” that they had found absent elsewhere. “Many of these guys came from bad homes growing up and they wanted that belonging they didn’t have in childhood…. Everyone else in the organization had issues with Devon’s religious beliefs, but they ignored it because they thought that Devon cared about them and that he wouldn’t ever do something like this to them.”

I also asked if it occurred to them that someone, perhaps a mentally ill person, might take everything seriously and actually do something about it.

“Oh of course,” James said. “I’m sure Brandon realized something wasn’t quite right with Devon. Never suspected he would do anything. But again, Devon was his best and closest friend, and many times people will overlook the bad qualities of loved ones.”

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