Columbia’s ongoing protests cause canceled classes and increased tensions

NEW YORK — Columbia University held virtual classes Monday on the sixth continuous day of student protests over the Israel-Hamas conflict. 

University president Nemat “Minouche” Shafik sent an email to the Columbia community announcing that classes would be held virtually. 

“The decibel of our disagreements has only increased in recent days,” Shafik wrote. “These tensions have been exploited and amplified by individuals who are not affiliated with Columbia who have come to campus to pursue their own agendas. We need a reset.”

More than 100 students were arrested at the school April 18, after the university’s president authorized police to clear away protesters. Some of the students also received suspension notices from the school. 

Columbia’s action prompted an onslaught of pro-Palestinian demonstrations at other universities and responses from faculty and politicians.

The arrests occurred after students calling themselves Columbia University Apartheid Divest erected dozens of tents on a lawn at the center of the campus, establishing it as the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment.”

Following the arrests and the demolition of the original encampment, another pro-Palestine encampment sprung on an adjacent lawn.

Students aren’t the only demonstrators experiencing tensions on campus and with the university administration.

Monday morning, Business School assistant professor Shai Davidai was denied entry to the university for an attempted pro-Israel counter-protest on the occupied lawn after he refused to comply with the university’s counter-protest policies. 

“I am a professor here; I have every right to be everywhere on campus. You cannot let people who support Hamas on campus, and me, a professor, not on campus. Let me in now,” he said after Columbia COO Cass Halloway stopped him and other pro-Israel protesters at the entrance gates.

He has repeatedly called student protesters “violent maniacs” and “pro-Hamas terrorists.” A petition calling for Davidai’s dismissal has amassed nearly 9,000 signatures as of last Thursday night; additional grievances have been shared on social media and with the university.

Some Jewish students at Columbia say that many criticisms of Israel are antisemitic and make them feel unsafe.

Since the arrests, many student groups and Columbia affiliate groups have released statements condemning the university’s decision to arrest students, citing discriminatory enforcement of rules that limit students’ freedom of speech. 

Monday, hundreds of faculty members from across Columbia and Barnard staged a rally and walkout to urge the university to reverse the students’ suspensions. Some faculty members wore their graduation regalia and sashes reading “We support students.”

The backlash from the protests has even reached the ear of U.S. President Joe Biden. When asked about the recent events at the university by reporters Monday, Biden said, “I condemn the antisemitic protests. That’s why I have set up a program to deal with that. I also condemn those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.”

Other campuses, such as Yale, Stanford, and New York University have also rallied around the Palestinian cause, calling for their universities to divest from companies with ties to Israel and for a ceasefire in Gaza. Many have put up tent encampments on their campuses. About 50 students were arrested at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut, Monday after they refused to leave their encampment.

Student protesters at Columbia have urged organizers of rallies outside the campus to “remember what we are protesting for” and focus on the war in Gaza, rather than just expressing solidarity with protesters. 

Some information for this report was provided by Reuters and the Associated Press.

 

Cannabis a rare consensus issue ahead of US election

washington — Marijuana use is a rare consensus issue in politically divided America, with polls showing that 88% of Americans support at least partial legalization. But neither of the two main presidential contenders are capitalizing on this, advocates say, with both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump landing far behind where most Americans are on the issue.

VOA spoke to cannabis advocates on the sidelines of a rare, recent policy summit on the issue, held annually in Washington as a preview to a weekend-long music festival.

“One thing [both candidates] have in common is that their track records on cannabis have been inconsistent and incremental,” said Caroline Phillips, organizer of the National Cannabis Policy Summit. “We’ve heard promises from both administrations, neither of which have panned out in full.”

Biden in 2022 directed the Department of Health and Human Services to take a key step toward legalization by ordering a review of its classification of marijuana as a dangerous controlled substance, on par with heroin and LSD.

Nearly a year later, the body recommended moving marijuana to a lighter classification, alongside prescription drugs. That ruling now sits with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which has the power to act.

But, Phillips said, many advocates seek the full removal – or “de-scheduling” – of the substance from the DEA’s Controlled Substances Act.

“They have given us great signals that they’re willing to shift towards de-scheduling, but most likely re-scheduling,” she said of the Biden administration. “However, we haven’t quite seen the action to back up their words.”

Re-scheduling puts marijuana on par with prescription drugs and regulates users’ access to it; de-scheduling removes it from the list of controlled substances entirely.

Neera Tanden, director of Biden’s Domestic Policy Council, said the administration sees a need to learn more – something that re-scheduling the substance would enable by making it more readily available to scientific researchers.

“There’s been a lot of change on this issue for several years,” she told VOA. “It’s important for us to be able to research it more effectively.”

A small but vocal group of anti-cannabis legislators in Congress have also expressed concerns about changing the status of marijuana. Last year, 14 of them – all Republicans – sent a letter opposing the effort to loosen its classification.

In their letter, the group pointed to the potential for addiction and the increased potency of today’s cannabis, saying “facts indicate that marijuana has a high potential for abuse and that the risk is only increasing.”

Trump’s position on marijuana, advocates say, is hazy. The pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project says he “never brought the issue up proactively” as president. Since leaving office, Phillips said, “we’ve heard him both say that people who sell drugs in the illicit market should be jailed and even put to death.”

On the campaign trail, Trump has largely avoided the issue, said Morgan Fox, political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, known as NORML.

“We haven’t heard too much from the Republican nominee so far,” he said.

The personal becomes political

The candidates’ attitudes, Fox said, are out of step with those of many Americans, and lean on old tropes about marijuana that paint users as prone to mania – like in the 1936 film “Reefer Madness” – or use fear as a tool, like the 1980s-era Drug Abuse Resistance Education program.

“Luckily, with the advent of the internet and the development of a lot more communication around these issues, people have not only been able to see that the policy of prohibiting cannabis and criminalizing cannabis consumers is nonsensical, but they’ve also been able to really see the human impact that it has had,” he said.

For entrepreneur William Davis, this is personal. With his pressed jeans, alligator-skin boots, crisp white cowboy hat and penchant for replying to questions with “yes, ma’am,” he knows he does not cut the figure of a stereotypical cannabis user.

“It’s a lot of people that you would never think,” he said.

For years, the Iraq war veteran struggled with PTSD and opioid addiction. He was reluctant to accept a friend’s recommendation that he try cannabis, he said, because to him it evoked a wildly popular 1980s ad that showed a frying egg, and a stern admonition: “This is your brain on drugs.”

“Like in a hot pan with the egg, I thought, ‘Nah, I don’t wanna try drugs, I’m gonna fry my brains,’” Davis said.

Instead, he said, marijuana produced a revelation. Davis says he uses CBD, the non-psychoactive compound found in marijuana, to soothe his anxiety during the day, and the active component, THC, for relaxation after work.

Six years ago, he founded a company, Euphoria Eats, that sells infused hot sauce and barbecue sauce.

Davis, who is from Houston but now lives in solidly Republican Louisiana, said he supports legalization for business reasons.

“Until this will be decriminalized and legal everywhere, there will always be hesitant individuals who are afraid to put their money into a lucrative business that they see is making money, that they see is making an impact on the community,” he told VOA.

‘My vote influences cannabis laws’

Polls show that the greatest pro-cannabis momentum comes from younger Americans.

Community organizer Scotty Smart spoke to VOA about his position as a young progressive, which was summarized neatly on his moss-green T-shirt that read: “MY VOTE INFLUENCES CANNABIS LAWS.”

“I think cannabis is an issue that ignites and excites young people to pay attention,” said Smart, who works with the nonpartisan New Georgia Project and with a pro-marijuana education and awareness movement called We Want all the Smoke.

A key factor that young voters are watching for, he said, is whether the Biden administration moves forward with the process of downgrading cannabis.

“Hopefully that takes place before the election so we can really see, have something to go off of and not just have election speeches giving us hope,” he said.

Maya Tatum, former chair of the national grassroots group Students for Sensible Drug Policy, agreed that the candidates’ actions matter more than their words. Neither man, she said, is a clear winner here.

“A lot of the young voters that I’m around are wanting to hold Joe Biden accountable for what he said,” in support of cannabis, she said. “I don’t personally feel like there’s a lot that Trump is offering as it relates to cannabis.”

Fox said NORML would like to see political aspirants be more open about cannabis on the campaign trail.

“Any candidate that actually wants to get ahead – whether it’s in the presidential election in Congress or state legislatures or local legislators – if they ignore this issue, it’s going to be at their peril,” he said.

Veronica Balderas Iglesias contributed to this report from Washington.

Work starts on bullet train rail line from Las Vegas to Los Angeles

las vegas — A $12 billion high-speed passenger rail line between Las Vegas and the Los Angeles area has started construction, officials said Monday, amid predictions that millions of ticket-buyers will be boarding trains by 2028.

“People have been dreaming of high-speed rail in America for decades,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement released to coincide with a ceremony at the future site of a terminal to be built just south of the Las Vegas Strip.

Buttigieg predicted the project will bring “thousands of union jobs, new connections to better economic opportunity, less congestion on the roads, and less pollution in the air.”

Brightline West, whose sister company already operates a fast train between Miami and Orlando in Florida, aims to lay 351 kilometers of new track between Las Vegas and another new facility in Rancho Cucamonga, California. Almost the full distance is to be built in the median of Interstate 15, with a station stop in San Bernardino County’s Victorville area.

Brightline Holdings founder and Chairperson Wes Edens dubbed the moment “the foundation for a new industry.”

“This is a historic project and a proud moment,” Edens said in the statement. “Today is long overdue.”

Brightline aims to link other U.S. cities that are too near to each other for air travel to make sense and too far for people to drive the distance.

Company CEO Mike Reininger has said the goal is to have trains operating in time for the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles in 2028.

Brightline received $6.5 billion in backing from the Biden administration, including a $3 billion grant from federal infrastructure funds and approval to sell another $2.5 billion in tax-exempt bonds. The company won federal authorization in 2020 to sell $1 billion in similar bonds.

The project is touted as the first true high-speed passenger rail line in the nation, designed to reach speeds of 186 mph (300 kph), comparable to Japan’s Shinkansen bullet trains.

The route between Vegas and L.A. is largely open space, with no convenient alternate to I-15. Brightline’s Southern California terminal will be at a commuter rail connection to downtown Los Angeles.

The project outline says electric-powered trains will cut the four-hour trip across the Mojave Desert to a little more than two hours. Forecasts are for 11 million one-way passengers per year, or some 30,000 per day, with fares well below airline travel costs. The trains will offer restrooms, Wi-Fi, food and beverage sales and the option to check luggage.

Las Vegas is a popular driving destination for Southern Californians. Officials hope the train line will relieve congestion on I-15, where drivers often sit in miles of crawling traffic while returning home from a Las Vegas weekend.

The Las Vegas area, now approaching 3 million residents, draws more than 40 million visitors per year. Passenger traffic at the city’s Harry Reid International Airport set a record of 57.6 million people in 2023. An average of more than 44,000 automobiles per day crossed the California-Nevada state line on I-15 in 2023, according to Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority data.

Florida-based Brightline Holdings launched the Miami-to-Orlando line in 2018 with trains reaching speeds up to 125 mph (200 kph). It expanded service to Orlando International Airport last September. It offers 16 roundtrips per day, with one-way tickets for the 235-mile (378-kilometer) distance costing about $80.

Other fast trains in the U.S. include Amtrak’s Acela, which can top 241 kph while sharing tracks with freight and commuter service between Boston and Washington, D.C.

Passenger trains to Las Vegas ended in 1997, when Amtrak ended service.

Ideas for connecting other U.S. cities with high-speed passenger trains have been floated in recent years, including Dallas to Houston; Atlanta to Charlotte, North Carolina; and Chicago to St. Louis. Most have faced delays.

In California, voters in 2008 approved a proposed 805-kilometer rail line linking Los Angeles and San Francisco, but the plan has been beset by rising costs and routing disputes. A 2022 business plan by the California High-Speed Rail Authority projected the cost had more than tripled to $105 billion.

Mary J. Blige, Cher, Ozzy Osbourne, others picked for Rock Hall of Fame

new york — Mary J. Blige,Cher, Foreigner, A Tribe Called Quest, Kool & The Gang and Ozzy Osbourne have been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a class that also includes folk-rockers Dave Matthews Band and singer-guitarist Peter Frampton.

Alexis Korner, John Mayall and Big Mama Thornton earned the Musical Influence Award, while the late Jimmy Buffett, MC5, Dionne Warwick and Norman Whitfield will get the Musical Excellence Award. Pioneering music executive Suzanne de Passe won the Ahmet Ertegun Award.

“Rock ‘n’ roll is an ever-evolving amalgam of sounds that impacts culture and moves generations,” John Sykes, chairman of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, said in a statement. “This diverse group of inductees each broke down musical barriers and influenced countless artists that followed in their footsteps.”

The induction ceremony will be held October 19 at the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in the city of Cleveland in the U.S. state of Ohio. It will stream live on Disney+ with an airing on ABC at a later date and available on Hulu the next day.

The music acts nominated this year but didn’t make the cut included Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, the late Sinead O’Connor, soul-pop singer Sade, Britpoppers Oasis, hip-hop duo Eric B. & Rakim, and alt-rockers Jane’s Addiction.

There had been a starry push to get Foreigner — with the hits “Urgent” and Hot Blooded” — into the hall, with Mark Ronson, Jack Black, Slash, Dave Grohl and Paul McCartney all publicly backing the move. Ronson’s stepfather is Mick Jones, Foreigner’s founding member, songwriter and lead guitarist.

Osbourne, who led many parents in the 1980s to clutch their pearls with his devil imagery and sludgy music, goes in as a solo artist, having already been inducted into the hall with metal masters Black Sabbath.

Four of the eight nominees — Cher, Foreigner, Frampton and Kool & the Gang — were on the ballot for the first time.

Cher — the only artist to have a Number 1 song in each of the past six decades — and Blige, with eight multi-platinum albums and nine Grammy Awards, will help boost the number of women in the hall, which critics say is too low.

Artists must have released their first commercial recording at least 25 years before they’re eligible for induction.

Nominees were voted on by more than 1,000 artists, historians and music industry professionals. Fans voted online or in person at the museum, with the top five artists picked by the public making up a “fans’ ballot” that was tallied with the other professional ballots.

Last year, Missy Elliott, Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow, Chaka Khan, “Soul Train” creator Don Cornelius, Kate Bush, and the late George Michael were some of the artists who got into the hall.

‘Civil War’ continues box-office campaign at No. 1  

New York — “Civil War,” Alex Garland’s ominous American dystopia, remained the top film in theaters in its second week of release, according to studio estimates Sunday.

The A24 election-year gamble, the indie studio’s biggest budgeted film yet, took in $11.1 million in ticket sales at 3,929 theaters over the weekend. The $50 million film, set in a near-future U.S. in which Texas and California have joined in rebellion against a fascist president, has grossed $44.9 million in two weeks.

Its provocative premise — and A24’s marketing, which included images of U.S. cities ravaged by war — helped keep “Civil War” top of mind for moviegoers.

But it was a painfully slow weekend in theaters — the kind sure to add to concern over what’s thus far been a down year for Hollywood at the box office.

Going into the weekend, Universal Pictures’ “Abigail,” a critically acclaimed R-rated horror film about the daughter of Dracula, had been expected to lead ticket sales. It came in second with $10.2 million in 3,384 theaters.

That was still a fair result for a film that cost a modest $28 million to make. “Abigail,” which remakes the 1936 monster film “Dracula’s Daughter,” is about a 12-year-old girl taken by kidnappers who soon realize they’ve made a poor choice of hostage. It’s directed by the duo Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett whose production company goes by the name Radio Silence.

More concerning was the overall tepid response for a handful of new wide releases — and the likelihood that there will be more similar weekends throughout 2024. Last year’s actors and writers’ strikes, which had a prolonged effect on the movie pipeline, exacerbated holes in Hollywood’s release schedule.

Horror films, in recent years among the most reliable cash cows in theaters, also haven’t thus far been doing the automatic business they previously did. According to David A. Gross, who runs the consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research, horror releases accounted for $2 billion in worldwide sales in 2023.

Guy Ritchie’s “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” debuted with $9 million in 2,845 theaters. In the based-on-a-true-story Lionsgate release, which reportedly cost $60 million to produce, Henry Cavill leads a World War II mission off the coast of West Africa.

Though Ritchie has been behind numerous box-office hits, including the live-action “Aladdin” and a pair of Sherlock Holmes films, his recent movies have struggled to find big audiences. The Lionsgate spy comedy “Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre” grossed $48 million against a $50 million budget, while MGM’s “The Covenant,” also released last year, made $21 million while costing $55 million to make.

A bright sign for “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” — audiences liked it. The film earned an A-minus CinemaScore.

The anime “Spy x Family Code: White,” from Sony’s Crunchyroll, also struggled to stand out with audiences. Though the adaptation of the Tatsuya Endo manga TV series “Spy x Family” has already been a hit with international moviegoers, it debuted below expectations with $4.9 million in 2,009 U.S. theaters.

The mightiest film globally, though, continues to be “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire.” The Warner Bros. monster movie has for the past month led worldwide ticket sales. It added another $9.5 million domestically and $21.6 million internationally to bring its four-week global total to $485.2 million.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Comscore. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.

 

  1. “Civil War,” $11.1 million.

  2. “Abigail,” $10.2 million.

  3. “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire,” $9.5 million.

  4. “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,” $9 million.

  5. “Spy x Family Code: White,” $4.9 million.

  6. “Kung Fu Panda 4,” $4.6 million.

  7. “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire,” $4.4 million.

  8. “Dune: Part Two,” $2.9 million.

  9. “Monkey Man,” $2.2 million.

  10. “The First Omen,” $1.7 million.

Hawaii lawmakers take aim at vacation rentals after wildfire amplifies housing crisis

HONOLULU — A single mother of two, Amy Chadwick spent years scrimping and saving to buy a house in the town of Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui. But after a devastating fire leveled Lahaina in August and reduced Chadwick’s home to white dust, the cheapest rental she could find for her family and dogs cost $10,000 a month.

Chadwick, a fine-dining server, moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars. She’s worried Maui’s exorbitant rental prices, driven in part by vacation rentals that hog a limited housing supply, will hollow out her tight-knit town.

Most people in Lahaina work for hotels, restaurants and tour companies and can’t afford $5,000 to $10,000 a month in rent, she said.

“You’re pushing out an entire community of service industry people. So no one’s going to be able to support the tourism that you’re putting ahead of your community,” Chadwick said by phone from her new home in Satellite Beach on Florida’s Space Coast. “Nothing good is going to come of it unless they take a serious stance, putting their foot down and really regulating these short-term rentals.”

The August 8 wildfire killed 101 people and destroyed housing for 6,200 families, amplifying Maui’s already acute housing shortage and laying bare the enormous presence of vacation rentals in Lahaina. It reminded lawmakers that short-term rentals are an issue across Hawaii, prompting them to consider bills that would give counties the authority to phase them out.

Gov. Josh Green got so frustrated he blurted an expletive during a recent news conference.

“This fire uncovered a clear truth, which is we have too many short-term rentals owned by too many individuals on the mainland and it is b———t,” Green said. “And our people deserve housing, here.”

Vacation rentals are a popular alternative to hotels for those seeking kitchens, lower costs and opportunities to sample everyday island life. Supporters say they boost tourism, the state’s biggest employer. Critics revile them for inflating housing costs, upending neighborhoods and contributing to the forces pushing locals and Native Hawaiians to leave Hawaii for less expensive states.

This migration has become a major concern in Lahaina. The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, a nonprofit, estimates at least 1,500 households — or a quarter of those who lost their homes — have left since the August wildfire.

The blaze burned single family homes and apartments in and around downtown, which is the core of Lahaina’s residential housing. An analysis by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization found a relatively low 7.5% of units there were vacation rentals as of February 2023.

Lahaina neighborhoods spared by the fire have a much higher ratio of vacation rentals: About half the housing in Napili, about 11 kilometers north of the burn zone, is short-term rentals.

Napili is where Chadwick thought she found a place to buy when she first went house hunting in 2016. But a Canadian woman secured it with a cash offer and turned it into a vacation rental.

Also outside the burn zone are dozens of short-term rental condominium buildings erected decades ago on land zoned for apartments.

In 1992, Maui County explicitly allowed owners in these buildings to rent units for less than 180 days at a time even without short-term rental permits. Since November, activists have occupied the beach in front of Lahaina’s biggest hotels to push the mayor or governor to use their emergency powers to revoke this exemption.

Money is a powerful incentive for owners to rent to travelers: a 2016 report prepared for the state found a Honolulu vacation rental generates 3.5 times the revenue of a long-term rental.

State Rep. Luke Evslin, the Housing Committee chair, said Maui and Kauai counties have suffered net losses of residential housing in recent years thanks to a paucity of new construction and the conversion of so many homes to short-term rentals.

“Every alarm bell we have should be ringing when we’re literally going backwards in our goal to provide more housing in Hawaii,” he said.

In his own Kauai district, Evslin sees people leaving, becoming homeless or working three jobs to stay afloat.

The Democrat was one of 47 House members who co-sponsored one version of legislation that would allow short-term rentals to be phased out. One objective is to give counties more power after a U.S. judge in 2022 ruled Honolulu violated state law when it attempted to prohibit rentals for less than 90 days. Evslin said that decision left Hawaii’s counties with limited tools, such as property taxes, to control vacation rentals.

Lawmakers also considered trying to boost Hawaii’s housing supply by forcing counties to allow more houses to be built on individual lots. But they watered down the measure after local officials said they were already exploring the idea.

Short-term rental owners said a phase-out would violate their property rights and take their property without compensation, potentially pushing them into foreclosure. Some predicted legal challenges.

Alicia Humiston, president of the Rentals by Owner Awareness Association, said some areas in West Maui were designed for travelers and therefore lack schools and other infrastructure families need.

“This area in West Maui that is sort of like this resort apartment zone — that’s all north of Lahaina — it was never built to be local living,” Humiston said.

One housing advocate argues that just because a community allowed vacation rentals decades ago doesn’t mean it still needs to now.

“We are not living in the 1990s or in the 1970s,” said Sterling Higa, executive director of Housing Hawaii’s Future. Counties “should have the authority to look at existing laws and reform them as necessary to provide for the public good.”

Courtney Lazo, a real estate agent who is part of Lahaina Strong, the group occupying Kaanapali Beach, said tourists can stay in her hometown now but many locals can’t.

“How do you expect a community to recover and heal and move forward when the people who make Lahaina, Lahaina, aren’t even there anymore?” she said at a recent news conference as her voice quivered. “They’re moving away.”

Taiwan to discuss with US how to use new funding

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan’s defense ministry said Sunday it will discuss with the United States how to use funding for the island included in a $95 billion legislative package mostly providing security assistance to Ukraine and Israel. 

The United States is Taiwan’s most important international supporter and arms supplier despite the absence of formal diplomatic ties. 

Democratically governed Taiwan has faced increased military pressure from China, which views the island as its own territory. Taiwan’s government rejects those claims. 

The defense ministry expressed thanks to the U.S. House of Representatives for passing the package on Saturday, saying it demonstrated the “rock solid” U.S. support for Taiwan. 

The ministry added it “will coordinate the relevant budget uses with the United States through existing exchange mechanisms and work hard to strengthen combat readiness capabilities to ensure national security and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” 

Taiwan has since 2022 complained of delays in deliveries of U.S. weapons such as Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, as manufacturers focused on supplying Ukraine to help the country battle invading Russian forces. 

Underscoring the pressure Taiwan faces from China, the ministry said Sunday morning that during the previous 24 hours 14 Chinese military aircraft had crossed the sensitive median line of the Taiwan Strait. 

The median line once served as an unofficial border between the two sides, which neither military crossed. But China’s air force now regularly sends aircraft over it. China says it does not recognize the line’s existence. 

On Saturday, Taiwan’s defense ministry said China had again carried out “joint combat readiness patrols” with Chinese warships and warplanes around Taiwan. 

China’s defense ministry did not answer calls seeking comment outside of office hours Sunday. 

The island’s armed forces are dwarfed by those of China’s, especially the navy and air force. 

Once foreign aid bill signed, this is how US can rush weapons to Ukraine

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon could get weapons moving to Ukraine within days once Congress passes a long-delayed aid bill. That’s because it has a network of storage sites in the U.S. and Europe that hold the ammunition and air defense components that Kyiv desperately needs.

Moving fast is critical, CIA Director Bill Burns said this past week, warning that without additional aid from the U.S., Ukraine could lose the war to Russia by the end of this year.

“We would like very much to be able to rush the security assistance in the volumes we think they need to be able to be successful,” Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said.

The House approved $61 billion in funding for the war-torn country Saturday. It still needs to clear the Senate and President Joe Biden’s signature.

Once that happens, “we have a very robust logistics network that enables us to move material very quickly,” Ryder told reporters this past week. “We can move within days.”

Ready to go

The Pentagon has had supplies ready to go for months but hasn’t moved them because it is out of money. It has spent the funding Congress previously provided to support Ukraine, sending more than $44 billion worth of weapons, maintenance, training and spare parts since Russia’s February 2022 invasion.

By December, the Pentagon was $10 billion in the hole, because it is going to cost more now to replace the systems it sent to the battlefield in Ukraine.

As a result, the Pentagon’s frequent aid packages for Ukraine dried up because there had been no guarantee that Congress would pass the additional funding needed to replenish the weapons the U.S. has been sending to Ukraine.

The lag in weapons deliveries has forced Ukrainian troops to spend months rationing their dwindling supply of munitions.

How US can quickly move weapons

When an aid package for Ukraine is announced, the weapons are either provided through presidential drawdown authority, which allows the military to immediately pull from its stockpiles, or through security assistance, which funds longer-term contracts with the defense industry to obtain the systems.

The presidential drawdown authority, or PDA, as it’s known, has allowed the military to send billions of dollars’ worth of ammunition, air defense missile launchers, tanks, vehicles and other equipment to Ukraine.

“In the past, we’ve seen weapons transferred via presidential drawdown authority arrive within a matter of days,” said Brad Bowman, director at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies center on military and political power.

Those stocks are pulled from bases or storage facilities in the U.S. or from European sites where the U.S. has surged weapons to cut down on the amount of time it will take to deliver them once the funding is approved.

Storage in US

The military has massive weapons storage facilities in the U.S. for millions of rounds of munitions of all sizes that would be ready to use in case of war.

For example, the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant in Oklahoma sprawls across more than 16,000 hectares connected by rail and has a mission to surge as many as 435 shipping containers — each able to carry 15 tons worth of munitions — if ordered by the president.

The facility is also a major storage site for one of the most used munitions on Ukraine’s battlefield, 155 mm howitzer rounds.

The demand by Ukraine for that particular shell has put pressure on U.S. stockpiles and pushed the military to see where else it could get them. As a result, tens of thousands of 155 mm rounds have been shipped back from South Korea to McAlester to be retrofitted for Ukraine.

Storage in Europe

According to a U.S. military official, the U.S. would be able to send certain munitions “almost immediately” to Ukraine because storehouses exist in Europe.

Among the weapons that could go very quickly are the 155 mm rounds and other artillery, along with some air defense munitions. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss preparations not yet made public.

A host of sites across Germany, Poland and other European allies also are helping Ukraine maintain and train on systems sent to the front. For example, Germany set up a maintenance hub for Kyiv’s Leopard 2 tank fleet in Poland, near the Ukrainian border.

The nearby maintenance hubs hasten the turnaround time to get needed repairs done on the Western systems. 

Pakistan protests ‘erroneous’ US sanctions on Chinese firms over missile program allegations

Islamabad — Pakistan criticized the United States on Saturday for penalizing four international companies on charges they are aiding its ballistic missile program.

“Pakistan rejects political use of export controls,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch.

The reaction came a day after Washington imposed sanctions on three Chinese companies and one Belarus-based firm for their alleged links to Islamabad’s missile development program.

“These entities have supplied missile‐applicable items to Pakistan’s ballistic missile program, including its long-range missile program,” the U.S. State Department said on Friday.

It noted that the sanctions are part of U.S. efforts to disrupt and target “proliferators of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery” and strengthen the global nonproliferation “regime.”

“Such listings of commercial entities have taken place in the past as well on allegations of links to Pakistan’s ballistic missile program without sharing any evidence whatsoever,” Baloch said.

“We have pointed out many times the need to avoid (the) arbitrary application of export controls and for discussions between concerned parties for an objective mechanism to avoid erroneous sanctions on (the) technology needed purely for socio-economic development pursuits,” she added.

Baloch renewed Islamabad’s readiness to discuss “end-use and end-user verification mechanisms so that legitimate commercial users are not hurt by discriminatory application of export controls.

She asserted that Pakistan has in the past come across instances where mere suspicions led to the blacklisting of foreign companies.

 

The U.S. identified the alleged suppliers to Islamabad’s ballistic missile program as China-based Xi’an Longde Technology Development Company Limited, Tianjin Creative Source International Trade Co. Ltd., Granpect Company Limited, and Belarus-based Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant.

Under the U.S. executive order, all assets, properties, and interests in properties of the sanctioned companies located within the United States or controlled by U.S. citizens must be blocked and reported to the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC.

The listing makes it illegal for any individual or entity within the United States, or any U.S. citizen to engage in any transactions involving property or interests in property of designated or blocked companies unless authorized by a specific or general license issued by OFAC or exempted.

Without naming the U.S. or any other country, Baloch stated that “the same jurisdictions” claiming “strict adherence” to the nonproliferation of weapons and military technologies would sometimes make exceptions “for some countries” and have even waived licensing requirements to help them obtain advanced military equipment.

“Such discriminatory approaches and double standards are undermining the credibility of nonproliferation regimes and accentuating military asymmetries, which, in turn, undermine the objectives of regional and global peace and security,” she said. “This is leading to arms buildup (in the region).”

Baloch was apparently referring to Washington’s close military and nuclear cooperation with Pakistan’s archrival India. The nuclear-armed South Asian neighbors have fought three wars, and their decades-old territorial dispute over the divided Kashmir region remains the primary source of mutual tensions.

Tennessee Volkswagen employees vote to join United Auto Workers union

Chattanooga, Tennessee — Employees at a Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, voted to join the United Auto Workers union Friday in a historic first test of the UAW’s renewed effort to organize nonunion factories.

The union wound up getting 2,628 votes, or 73% of the ballots cast, compared with only 985 who voted no in an election run by the National Labor Relations Board.

Both sides have five business days to file objections to the election, the NLRB said. If there are none, the election will be certified, and VW and the union must “begin bargaining in good faith.”

President Joe Biden, who backed the UAW and won its endorsement, said the union’s win follows major union gains across the country including actors, port workers, Teamsters members, writers and health care workers.

Twice in recent years, workers at the Chattanooga plant have rejected union membership in plantwide votes. Most recently, they handed the UAW a narrow defeat in 2019 as federal prosecutors were breaking up a bribery-and-embezzlement scandal at the union.

But this time, they voted convincingly for the UAW, which is operating under new leadership directly elected by members for the first time and basking in a successful confrontation with Detroit’s major automakers.

The union’s new president, Shawn Fain, was elected on a platform of cleaning up after the scandal and turning more confrontational with automakers. An emboldened Fain, backed by Biden, led the union in a series of strikes last fall against Detroit’s automakers that resulted in lucrative new contracts.

Next up for a union vote are workers at Mercedes factories near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, who will vote on UAW representation in May.

Fain said he was not surprised by the size of the union’s win Friday after the two previous losses.

“This gives workers everywhere else the indication that it’s OK,” Fain said. “All we’ve heard for years is we can’t win here, you can’t do this in the South, and you can.”

Worker Vicky Holloway of Chattanooga was among dozens of cheering workers celebrating at an electrical workers union hall near the VW plant. She said the overwhelming vote for the union came this time because her colleagues realized they could have better benefits and a voice in the workplace.

“Right now, we have no say,” said Holloway, who has worked at the plant for 13 years. “It’s like our opinions don’t matter.”

In a statement, Volkswagen thanked workers for voting and said 83.5% of the 4,300 production workers cast ballots in the election.

Six Southern governors, including Tennessee’s Bill Lee, warned the workers in a joint statement this week that joining the UAW could cost them their jobs and threaten the region’s economic progress.

But the overwhelming win is a warning to nonunion manufacturers, said Marick Masters, a business professor at Wayne State University in Detroit who studies the union.

“This is going to send a powerful message to all of those companies that the UAW is knocking at the door, and if they want to remain nonunion, they’ve got to step up their game,” Masters said.

Shortly after the Detroit contracts were ratified, Volkswagen and other nonunion companies handed their workers big pay raises.

Last fall, Volkswagen raised production worker pay by 11%, lifting top base wages to $32.40 per hour, or just over $67,000 per year. VW said its pay exceeds the median household income for the Chattanooga area, which was $54,480 last May, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

But under the UAW contracts, top production workers at GM, for instance, now earn $36 an hour, or about $75,000 a year excluding benefits and profit sharing. By the end of the contract in 2028, top-scale GM workers would make over $89,000.

Record numbers in the US are homeless — Can cities fine them for sleeping in parks and on sidewalks?

WASHINGTON — The most significant case in decades on homelessness has reached the Supreme Court as record numbers of people in America are without a permanent place to live.

The justices on Monday will consider a challenge to rulings from a California-based appeals court that found punishing people for sleeping outside when shelter space is lacking amounts to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.

A political cross section of officials in the West and California, home to nearly one-third of the nation’s homeless population, argue those decisions have restricted them from “common sense” measures intended to keep homeless encampments from taking over public parks and sidewalks.

Advocacy groups say the decisions provide essential legal protections, especially with an increasing number of people forced to sleep outdoors as the cost of housing soars.

The case before the Supreme Court comes from Grants Pass, a small city nestled in the mountains of southern Oregon, where rents are rising and there is just one overnight shelter for adults. As a growing number of tents clustered in its parks, the city banned camping and set $295 fines for people sleeping there.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals largely blocked the camping ban under its finding that it is unconstitutional to punish people for sleeping outside when there is not adequate shelter space. Grants Pass appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing the ruling left it few good options.

“It really has made it impossible for cities to address growing encampments, and they’re unsafe, unhealthy and problematic for everyone, especially those who are experiencing homelessness,” said lawyer Theane Evangelis, who is representing Grants Pass.

The city is also challenging a 2018 decision, known as Martin v. Boise, that first barred camping bans when shelter space is lacking. It was issued by the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit and applies to the nine Western states in its jurisdiction. The Supreme Court declined to take up a different challenge to the ruling in 2019, before the solidification of its current conservative majority.

If the decision is overturned, advocates say it would make it easier for cities to deal with homelessness by arresting and fining people rather than helping them get shelter and housing.

“In Grants Pass and across America, homelessness has grown because more and more hardworking people struggle to pay rent, not because we lack ways to punish people sleeping outside,” said Jesse Rabinowitz, campaign and communications director for the National Homeless Law Center. Local laws prohibiting sleeping in public spaces have increased at least 50% since 2006, he said.

The case comes after homelessness in the United States grew by 12%, to its highest reported level as soaring rents and a decline in coronavirus pandemic assistance combined to put housing out of reach for more people, according to federal data. Four in 10 people experiencing homelessness sleep outside, a federal report found.

More than 650,000 people are estimated to be homeless, the most since the country began using the yearly point-in-time survey in 2007. People of color, LGBTQ+ people and seniors are disproportionately affected, advocates said.

Two of four states with the country’s largest homeless populations, Washington and California, are in the West. Officials in cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco say they do not want to punish people simply because they are forced to sleep outside, but that cities need the power to keep growing encampments in check.

“I never want to criminalize homelessness, but I want to be able to encourage people to accept services and shelter,” said Thien Ho, the district attorney in Sacramento, California, where homelessness has risen sharply in recent years.

San Francisco says it has been blocked from enforcing camping regulations because the city does not have enough shelter space for its full homeless population, something it estimates would cost $1.5 billion to provide.

“These encampments frequently block sidewalks, prevent employees from cleaning public thoroughfares, and create health and safety risks for both the unhoused and the public at large,” lawyers for the city wrote. City workers have also encountered knives, drug dealing and belligerent people at encampments, they said.

Several cities and Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom urged the high court to keep some legal protections in place while reining in “overreach” by lower courts. The Martin v. Boise ruling allows cities to regulate and “sweep” encampments, but not enforce total bans in communities without enough beds in shelters.

The Justice Department also backed the idea that people shouldn’t be punished for sleeping outside when they have nowhere else to go, but said the Grants Pass ruling should be tossed out because 9th Circuit went awry by not defining what it means to be “involuntarily homeless.”

Evangelis, the lawyer for Grants Pass, argues that the Biden administration’s position would not solve the problem for the Oregon city. “It would be impossible for cities to really address the homelessness crisis,” she said.

Public encampments are not good places for people to live, said Ed Johnson, who represents people living outside in Grants Pass as director of litigation at the Oregon Law Center. But enforcement of camping bans often makes homelessness worse by requiring people to spend money on fines rather than housing or creating an arrest record that makes it harder to get an apartment. Public officials should focus instead on addressing shortages of affordable housing, so people have places to live, he said.

“It’s frustrating when people who have all the power throw up their hands and say, ‘there’s nothing we can do,’” he said. “People have to go somewhere.”

The Supreme Court is expected to rule by the end of June.

4/20 grew from humble roots to marijuana’s high holiday

SEATTLE — Saturday marks marijuana culture’s high holiday, 4/20, when college students gather — at 4:20 p.m. — in clouds of smoke on campus quads and pot shops in legal-weed states thank their customers with discounts.

This year’s edition provides an occasion for activists to reflect on how far their movement has come, with recreational pot now allowed in nearly half the states and the nation’s capital. Many states have instituted “social equity” measures to help communities of color, harmed the most by the drug war, reap financial benefits from legalization. And the White House has shown an openness to marijuana reform.

Here’s a look at 4/20’s history:

WHY 4/20?

 

The origins of the date, and the term “420” generally, were long murky. Some claimed it referred to a police code for marijuana possession or that it derived from Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35,” with its refrain of “Everybody must get stoned” — 420 being the product of 12 times 35.

But the prevailing explanation is that it started in the 1970s with a group of bell-bottomed buddies from San Rafael High School, in California’s Marin County north of San Francisco, who called themselves “the Waldos.” A friend’s brother was afraid of getting busted for a patch of cannabis he was growing in the woods at nearby Point Reyes, so he drew a map and gave the teens permission to harvest the crop, the story goes.

During fall 1971, at 4:20 p.m., just after classes and football practice, the group would meet up at the school’s statue of chemist Louis Pasteur, smoke a joint and head out to search for the weed patch. They never did find it, but their private lexicon — “420 Louie” and later just “420” — would take on a life of its own.

The Waldos saved postmarked letters and other artifacts from the 1970s referencing “420,” which they now keep in a bank vault, and when the Oxford English Dictionary added the term in 2017, it cited some of those documents as the earliest recorded uses.

HOW DID 420 SPREAD?

A brother of one of the Waldos was a close friend of Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, as Lesh once confirmed in an interview with the Huffington Post, now HuffPost. The Waldos began hanging out in the band’s circle and the slang spread.

Fast-forward to the early 1990s: Steve Bloom, a reporter for the cannabis magazine High Times, was at a Dead show when he was handed a flyer urging people to “meet at 4:20 on 4/20 for 420-ing in Marin County at the Bolinas Ridge sunset spot on Mt. Tamalpais.” High Times published it.

“It’s a phenomenon,” one of the Waldos, Steve Capper, now 69, once told The Associated Press. “Most things die within a couple years, but this just goes on and on. It’s not like someday somebody’s going to say, ‘OK, cannabis New Year’s is on June 23rd now.’”

While the Waldos came up with the term, the people who made the flier distributed at the Dead show — and effectively turned 4/20 into a holiday — remain unknown.

HOW IS IT CELEBRATED?

With weed, naturally.

Some celebrations are bigger than others: The Mile High 420 Festival in Denver, for example, typically draws thousands and describes itself as the largest free 4/20 event in the world. Hippie Hill in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park has also attracted massive crowds, but the gathering was canceled this year, with organizers citing a lack of financial sponsorship and city budget cuts.

College quads and statehouse lawns are also known for drawing 4/20 celebrations, with the University of Colorado Boulder historically among the largest, though not so much since administrators banned the annual smokeout over a decade ago.

Some breweries make beers that are 420-themed, but not laced, including SweetWater Brewing in Atlanta, which is throwing a 420 music festival this weekend and whose founders went to the University of Colorado.

Lagunitas Brewing in Petaluma, California, releases its “Waldos’ Special Ale” every year on 4/20 in partnership with the term’s coiners. That’s where the Waldos will be this Saturday to sample the beer, for which they picked out “hops that smell and taste like the dankest marijuana,” one Waldo, Dave Reddix, said via email.

4/20 has also become a big industry event, with vendors gathering to try each other’s wares.

THE POLITICS

The number of states allowing recreational marijuana has grown to 24 after recent legalization campaigns succeeded in Ohio, Minnesota and Delaware. Fourteen more states allow it for medical purposes, including Kentucky, where medical marijuana legislation that passed last year will take effect in 2025. Additional states permit only products with low THC, marijuana’s main psychoactive ingredient, for certain medical conditions.

But marijuana is still illegal under federal law. It is listed with drugs such as heroin under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, meaning it has no federally accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

The Biden administration, however, has taken some steps toward marijuana reform. The president has pardoned thousands of people who were convicted of “simple possession” on federal land and in the District of Columbia.

The Department of Health and Human Services last year recommended to the Drug Enforcement Administration that marijuana be reclassified as Schedule III, which would affirm its medical use under federal law.

According to a Gallup poll last fall, 70% of adults support legalization, the highest level yet recorded by the polling firm and more than double the roughly 30% who backed it in 2000.

Vivian McPeak, who helped found Seattle’s Hempfest more than three decades ago, reflected on the extent to which the marijuana industry has evolved during his lifetime.

“It’s surreal to drive by stores that are selling cannabis,” he said. “A lot of people laughed at us, saying, ‘This will never happen.’”

WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

McPeak described 4/20 these days as a “mixed bag.” Despite the legalization movement’s progress, many smaller growers are struggling to compete against large producers, he said, and many Americans are still behind bars for weed convictions.

“We can celebrate the victories that we’ve had, and we can also strategize and organize to further the cause,” he said. “Despite the kind of complacency that some people might feel, we still got work to do. We’ve got to keep burning that shoe leather until we get everybody out of jails and prisons.”

For the Waldos, 4/20 signifies above all else a good time.

“We’re not political. We’re jokesters,” Capper has said. “But there was a time that we can’t forget, when it was secret, furtive. … The energy of the time was more charged, more exciting in a certain way.

“I’m not saying that’s all good — it’s not good they were putting people in jail,” he continued. “You wouldn’t want to go back there.”

Senate passes reauthorization of key US surveillance program after midnight deadline

WASHINGTON — After its midnight deadline, the Senate voted early Saturday to reauthorize a key U.S. surveillance law after divisions over whether the FBI should be restricted from using the program to search for Americans’ data nearly forced the statute to lapse.

The legislation approved 60-34 with bipartisan support would extend for two years the program known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. It now goes to President Joe Biden’s desk to become law. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden “will swiftly sign the bill.”

“In the nick of time, we are reauthorizing FISA right before it expires at midnight,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said when voting on final passage began 15 minutes before the deadline. “All day long, we persisted, and we persisted in trying to reach a breakthrough and in the end, we have succeeded.”

U.S. officials have said the surveillance tool, first authorized in 2008 and renewed several times since then, is crucial in disrupting terror attacks, cyber intrusions, and foreign espionage and has also produced intelligence that the U.S. has relied on for specific operations, such as the 2022 killing of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri.

“If you miss a key piece of intelligence, you may miss some event overseas or put troops in harm’s way,” Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said. “You may miss a plot to harm the country here, domestically, or somewhere else. So, in this particular case, there’s real-life implications.”

The proposal would renew the program, which permits the U.S. government to collect without a warrant the communications of non-Americans located outside the country to gather foreign intelligence. The reauthorization faced a long and bumpy road to final passage Friday after months of clashes between privacy advocates and national security hawks pushed consideration of the legislation to the brink of expiration.

Though the spy program was technically set to expire at midnight, the Biden administration had said it expected its authority to collect intelligence to remain operational for at least another year, thanks to an opinion earlier this month from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which receives surveillance applications.

Still, officials had said that court approval shouldn’t be a substitute for congressional authorization, especially since communications companies could cease cooperation with the government if the program is allowed to lapse.

House before the law was set to expire, U.S. officials were already scrambling after two major U.S. communication providers said they would stop complying with orders through the surveillance program, according to a person familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private negotiations.

Attorney General Merrick Garland praised the reauthorization and reiterated how “indispensable” the tool is to the Justice Department.

“This reauthorization of Section 702 gives the United States the authority to continue to collect foreign intelligence information about non-U.S. persons located outside the United States, while at the same time codifying important reforms the Justice Department has adopted to ensure the protection of Americans’ privacy and civil liberties,” Garland said in a statement Saturday.

But despite the Biden administration’s urging and classified briefings to senators this week on the crucial role they say the spy program plays in protecting national security, a group of progressive and conservative lawmakers who were agitating for further changes had refused to accept the version of the bill the House sent over last week.

The lawmakers had demanded that Majority Leader Chuck Schumer allow votes on amendments to the legislation that would seek to address what they see as civil liberty loopholes in the bill. In the end, Schumer was able to cut a deal that would allow critics to receive floor votes on their amendments in exchange for speeding up the process for passage.

The six amendments ultimately failed to garner the necessary support on the floor to be included in the final passage.

One of the major changes detractors had proposed centered on restricting the FBI’s access to information about Americans through the program. Though the surveillance tool only targets non-Americans in other countries, it also collects communications of Americans when they are in contact with those targeted foreigners. Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber, had been pushing a proposal that would require U.S. officials to get a warrant before accessing American communications.

“If the government wants to spy on my private communications or the private communications of any American, they should be required to get approval from a judge, just as our Founding Fathers intended in writing the Constitution,” Durbin said.

In the past year, U.S. officials have revealed a series of abuses and mistakes by FBI analysts in improperly querying the intelligence repository for information about Americans or others in the U.S., including a member of Congress and participants in the racial justice protests of 2020 and the January 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

But members on both the House and Senate intelligence committees as well as the Justice Department warned requiring a warrant would severely handicap officials from quickly responding to imminent national security threats.

“I think that is a risk that we cannot afford to take with the vast array of challenges our nation faces around the world,” Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Friday.

 

Man who set himself on fire outside Trump trial dies of injuries, police say

NEW YORK — A man who doused himself in an accelerant and set himself on fire outside the courthouse where former President Donald Trump is on trial has died, police said. 

The New York City Police Department told The Associated Press early Saturday that the man was declared dead by staff at an area hospital.

The man was in Collect Pond Park around 1:30 p.m. Friday when he took out pamphlets espousing conspiracy theories, tossed them around, then doused himself in an accelerant and set himself on fire, officials and witnesses said.

A large number of police officers were nearby when it happened. Some officers and bystanders rushed to the aid of the man, who was hospitalized in critical condition.

The man, who police said had traveled from Florida to New York in the last few days, hadn’t breached any security checkpoints to get into the park. 

The park outside the courthouse has been a gathering spot for protesters, journalists and gawkers throughout Trump’s trial, which began with jury selection Monday. 

Through Friday, the streets and sidewalks in the area around the courthouse were generally wide open and crowds have been small and largely orderly. 

Authorities said they were also reviewing the security protocols, including whether to restrict access to the park. The side street where Trump enters and leaves the building is off limits.

“We may have to shut this area down,” New York City Police Department Deputy Commissioner Kaz Daughtry said at a news conference outside the courthouse, adding that officials would discuss the security plan soon.

How a Louisiana speed trap could be a constitutional crisis

New Orleans — Texas nurse Nick Nwoye had never heard of Fenton, Louisiana, before their police pulled him over. It’s how a lot of people first learn about the town.

“I was driving home to Houston a few years ago and had to pass through Fenton,” he told VOA. “The moment I saw the speed limit had changed from 65 mph to 50 mph [105 kph to 80 kph], I began to slow down. But it was too late.”

Nwoye says a police car was waiting behind a tree. The officer turned on his lights and pulled him over.

“He said I was driving 77 mph in a 50-mph zone [124 kph in an 80-kph zone], and there’s no way I was,” Nwoye explained. “The officer had this big smile on his face like, ‘I got you,’ as if this was a game the police played.”

Deciding to challenge the ticket, Nwoye called the town’s court to speak to the judge. That’s when he realized how difficult it would be to appeal the Louisiana fine.

“You know who the judge was?” he asked, exasperated. “It was the mayor. The mayor was his own town’s court judge. So on one hand, he’s deciding whether or not I should have to pay, and on the other hand he’s incentivized to have me pay because this is the money he needs to run Fenton.”

“He told me there was nothing he could do,” Nwoye scoffed. “But why would he want to do anything other than have me pay the town?”

Small town, big revenue

Located in western Louisiana, about an hour drive from the Texas border, Fenton’s 226 residents have a city hall, a gas station, a library, a grain elevator, a Baptist church, a public housing complex and a Dollar General store.

For such a small place, Fenton finds itself regularly in the news.

At first glance, its notoriety might appear to come from being a “speed trap town” — an area near a municipality in which the speed limit drops suddenly and drastically. Police officers wait for drivers to miss the speed change or fail to slow down in time and then pounce, writing them a costly ticket.

When those tickets are paid, the revenue can be substantial. In Fenton, for example, the 12 months ending in June 2022 brought $1.3 million to the town’s coffers from traffic violations. By comparison, that is about the same as Louisiana’s third-largest city, Shreveport.

While speed traps are not illegal, some legal experts caution that a quirk in the judicial system used in small Louisiana towns unfairly disadvantages those seeking to challenge their fines.

‘Write more tickets’

“They have a real racket going on in Fenton,” says Bo Powell, a retiree from Monroe, Louisiana, who was pulled over in Fenton in 2014.

The non-profit investigative journalism group ProPublica obtained and published a recording of Fenton Mayor Eddie Alfred, Jr. telling police officers last September that they needed to write more tickets or there would be layoffs in town government.

“Our main income is traffic tickets, and they ain’t getting written,” said the mayor in the recording. “We need to write more traffic tickets.”

“It’s like the whole village is a crime family,” Powell tells VOA. “Everyone in that courtroom — the mayor, the clerk, the police officer — is paid for by these tickets. How is this legal?”

But a “Mayor’s Court,” as it’s called, is legal in the states of Louisiana and Ohio.

Mayor’s Court

Bobby King is city attorney for Walker, Louisiana. He helps train mayors on their responsibilities in Mayor’s Courts, which have jurisdiction over municipal ordinance violations including traffic fines, but not over felonies or juvenile offenses.

“Mayor’s Courts are important for helping with managing a crowded docket of cases, and for providing a more economical option to smaller towns that can’t afford to pay for a judge and a city court,” King told VOA. “But the potential for bias due to revenue generation is definitely a valid concern.”

A just way forward

Mayor’s Courts were more common before a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a driver in Monroeville, Ohio, was denied a fair trial because the mayor who ruled against him was responsible for both law enforcement and generating municipal revenue.

“However, that case wasn’t a blanket ruling saying all Mayor’s Courts are unconstitutional,” explained Eric Foley, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center, which litigates for civil rights in criminal justice. “The ruling said that the law must consider whether ‘the mayor’s executive responsibilities for village finances might make him partisan to maintain the high level of contribution from the Mayor’s Court.’”

Louisiana and Ohio concluded that a mayor could be an impartial judge. For Ohio, where one out of every six traffic tickets are issued in jurisdictions governed by a Mayor’s Court, a federal judge ruled in 1995 that a mayor could be considered biased if at least 10% of the town’s revenue came from its Mayor’s Court.

Louisiana’s Judicial College recommends that Mayor’s Courts exceeding that 10% threshold should hire a magistrate.

“It’s still a Mayor’s Court,” says King, “but having someone else oversee cases could help ensure impartiality and fairness in the judicial process.”

Foley says it’s not a question of “whether there’s a percentage of overall revenue before a Mayor’s Court becomes unconstitutional.”

“Rather, these kinds of courts just shouldn’t exist,” says Foley. “The financial conflicts of interest are too great. A Mayor’s Court is largely unaccountable to anyone, and they lack the safeguards we should expect in criminal proceedings.”

The Mayor’s Court in Fenton generates more than 90% of town revenue. After some resistance, Mayor Alfred agreed in December to appoint a magistrate to his court.

“But why does a town of 226 people require its own court anyway?” asks Joanna Weiss, co-executive director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “The conflict is present in the existence of the court itself. The court, a key government function meant to protect everyone’s rights and responsibilities, is instead being used to meet a budget.”

US beach aims to disrupt Black students’ spring bash after ’23 chaos

TYBEE ISLAND, Georgia — Thousands of Black college students expected this weekend for an annual spring bash at the largest public beach in the U.S. state of Georgia will be greeted by dozens of extra police officers and barricades closing off neighborhood streets. While the beach will remain open, officials are blocking access to nearby parking.

Tybee Island east of Savannah has grappled with the April beach party known as Orange Crush since students at Savannah State University, a historically Black school, started it more than 30 years ago. Residents regularly groused about loud music, trash littering the sand and revelers urinating in yards.

Those complaints boiled over into fear and outrage a year ago when weekend crowds of up to 48,000 people daily overwhelmed the 4.8-kilometer island. That left a small police force scrambling to handle a flood of emergency calls reporting gunfire, drug overdoses, traffic jams and fistfights.

Mayor Brian West, elected last fall by Tybee Island’s 3,100 residents, said roadblocks and added police aren’t just for limiting crowds. He hopes the crackdown will drive Orange Crush away for good.

“This has to stop. We can’t have this crowd anymore,” West said. “My goal is to end it.”

Critics say local officials are overreacting and appear to be singling out Black visitors to a Southern beach that only white people could use until 1963. They note Tybee Island attracts vast crowds for the Fourth of July and other summer weekends when visitors are largely white, as are 92% of the island’s residents.

“Our weekends are packed with people all season, but when Orange Crush comes, they shut down the parking, bring extra police and act like they have to take charge,” said Julia Pearce, one of the island’s few Black residents and leader of a group called the Tybee MLK Human Rights Organization. She added: “They believe Black folks to be criminals.”

During the week, workers placed metal barricades to block off parking meters and residential streets along the main road parallel to the beach. Two large parking lots near a popular pier are being closed. And Tybee Island’s roughly two dozen police officers will be augmented by about 100 sheriff’s deputies, Georgia state troopers and other officers.

Security plans were influenced by tactics used last month to reduce crowds and violence at spring break in Miami Beach, which was observed by Tybee Island’s police chief.

Officials insist they’re acting to avoid a repeat of last year’s Orange Crush party, which they say became a public safety crisis with crowds at least double their typical size.

“To me, it has nothing to do with race,” said West, who believes city officials previously haven’t taken a stronger stand against Orange Crush because they feared being called racist. “We can’t let that be a reason to let our citizens be unsafe and so we’re not.”

Tybee Island police reported 26 total arrests during Orange Crush last year. Charges included one armed robbery with a firearm, four counts of fighting in public and five DUIs. Two officers reported being pelted with bottles, and two women told police they were beaten and robbed of a purse.

On a gridlocked highway about a mile off the island, someone fired a gun into a car and injured one person. Officials blamed the shooting on road rage.

Orange Crush’s supporters and detractors alike say it’s not college students causing the worst problems.

Joshua Miller, a 22-year-old Savannah State University senior who plans to attend this weekend, said he wouldn’t be surprised if the crackdown was at least partly motivated by race.

“I don’t know what they have in store,” Miller said. “I’m not going down there with any ill intent. I’m just going out there to have fun.”

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson was one of the Black students from Savannah State who helped launch Orange Crush in 1988. The university dropped involvement in the 1990s, and Johnson said that over time the celebration “got off the rails.” But he also told reporters he’s concerned about “over-representation of police” at the beach party.

At Nickie’s 1971 Bar & Grill near the beach, general manager Sean Ensign said many neighboring shops and eateries will close for Orange Crush though his will stay open, selling to-go food orders like last year. But with nearby parking spaces closed, Ensign said his profits might take a hit, “possibly a few thousand dollars.”

It’s not the first time Tybee Island has targeted the Black beach party. In 2017, the city council banned alcohol and amplified music on the beach only during Orange Crush weekend. A discrimination complaint to the U.S. Justice Department resulted in city officials signing a non-binding agreement to impose uniform rules for large events.

West says Orange Crush is different because it’s promoted on social media by people who haven’t obtained permits. A new state law lets local governments recoup public safety expenses from organizers of unpermitted events.

In February, Britain Wigfall was denied an permit for space on the island for food trucks during Orange Crush. The mayor said Wigfall has continued to promote events on the island.

Wigfall, 30, said he’s promoting a concert this weekend in Savannah, but nothing on Tybee Island involving Orange Crush.

“I don’t control it,” Wigfall said. “Nobody controls the date that people go down there.”