Happy to share a book review I published in this month’s issue of The Nation. The book is Golden Gates: Fighting For Housing In America, and was published earlier this year by Conor Dougherty, a New York Times journalist. It looks at the housing crisis in the U.S., with a particular focus on California and San Francisco. I was commissioned to do this piece in early February, before the pandemic upended our world, but COVID-19 has only reinforced even more brutally just how important it is to make sure everyone has a safe place to call home, and how important it is that we finally act.
Today I have a new story at The Intercept about what it means for hurricane season — which started June 1 — to overlap with this pandemic. I spoke with experts who have studied hurricanes, disaster response and evacuations for years, and aimed to lift up what will be most challenging, different, and how officials are hoping to plan for it.
One of the main differences that really jumped out at me: in past years when there have been major hurricanes, scores of volunteers from other states have come down to help deliver relief. Also many people who lack the means to leave their state during an evacuation might go stay with a neighbor or a friend whose house is on higher ground. Management experts say they expect volunteer capacity to be greatly diminished this season, and many households to be far more reticent about welcoming others into their homes. Even the calculus many might make after months of being told to stay at home combined with a new order to evacuate could be really confusing, especially if people are worried about how social distancing might work. The plan right now is to have all shelters abide by social distancing rules — but that also could require far more capacity than we’re used to. Something that would help avoid a lot of chaos is working now to keep cases as low as possible. You can read about all these questions and where FEMA is at here.
|Rachel Cohen||Jun 6|| 1|
Hi everyone. I hope you are having a good weekend. I wanted to share a story I published this week in The Intercept about Janeese Lewis George, who just won her election to the D.C City Council. Lewis George defeated the incumbent representative, and notably ran on a platform that included demilitarizing the police and taking some money out of the police budget and investing it into violence prevention programs and social services.
Lewis George’s platform, and her victory, is especially relevant right now as activists across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death have been calling for measures to defund the police.
(Credit: The Committee to Elect Janeese Lewis George)
Lewis George didn’t come to her views on policing out of nowhere. She worked for the Philadelphia District Attorney and later the D.C. Attorney General. Those experiences informed her views of public health-oriented approaches to safety.
I know for a lot of people the calls to defund the police have seemed abrupt, and confusing. One thing to consider is that people mean different things when they’re talking about defunding the police and abolition. One point activists and leaders like Lewis George have made, is that many measures we’ve taken to “strengthen” our police departments in recent years — like equip them with military gear and advanced surveillance technology — costs a ton of money. We can be rethinking all those investments and consider how we both work to decriminalize certain offenses like sex work and drug-use, while also investing into more preventative, humane areas, like education, healthcare, housing and social services.
This just isn’t how things are generally done, and I think a lot of people right now are starting to pay a lot more attention to how budgets are actually crafted. In Washington D.C., for example, the mayor’s latest proposed budget would increase police funding by 3.3 percent, but cut violence prevention programs by 11 percent. Similarly in Philadelphia, the mayor’s proposed budget cuts youth violence programs, workforce development and arts and culture, but offers a $14 million increase to its police department. And here is what the mayor is currently proposing in Baltimore:
You can read my story about Lewis George here and how she weathered attacks on the campaign trail that she was not taking public safety seriously. I also asked her what she would say to other politicians who are interested in bold police reforms but are nervous about political blowback.
I also want to recommend this podcast episode on police abolition, which I listened to this morning on a walk and found really clarifying and agitating. If you’ve been paying attention to some of debates over the last two weeks amid the police brutality protests, you may have heard people discussing abolition vs. criminal justice reform. I think this podcast did a really good job of helping to unpack some of those ideas and jargon and thinking.
This is a serious time of learning for everyone, including myself. I have been reporting on aspects of policing and criminal justice for as long as I’ve been in journalism. Just this week I remembered an article I published in 2014 that looked at the crazy (and still true) fact that the costs of police misconduct rarely, if ever, comes out of police budgets, and almost always comes from a city’s general coffers or insurance plan. In 2015 I was living in Baltimore and did a lot reporting on the protests and aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black resident who suffered a fatal spinal cord injury while in police custody.
But I’m still learning, and I think we all need to be doing so with a greater sense of urgency. And as important as it is to educate ourselves and our communities, we can’t stop there. I’ve been thinking about these tweets recently:
Lastly, if you feel a little awkward, embarrassed, confused or uncomfortable — just know that’s not a bad thing. It’s way better to feel that and be doing something, then to feel comfortable and be doing nothing. I know there are some really thoughtful people subscribed to this newsletter, and if there’s something you’ve read or watched or listened to recently that you’ve felt changed the way you think about policing and justice, please do post in the comments or shoot me an email — I’d love to hear. Likewise if there are new (or old) organizations you’re supporting right now that you want to help bring more awareness to, let us know. Thanks all.
And does the EITC deliver?
|Rachel Cohen||May 29|
So a bit of news: a little over a month ago I shared an Intercept story here I wrote about a newly-elected Milwaukee city councilmember whose first order of business was to draft legislation to ensure no Milwaukean would have to vote in-person in November if they didn’t want to. While Milwaukee doesn’t have the legal authority to mail everyone ballots (that’s up to the GOP-controlled state legislature), they can mail all registered voters absentee ballot applications along with prepaid postage to send the applications back in. The bill passed, and it was reported yesterday that now statewide officials in Wisconsin are looking to do the same thing.
That’s definitely encouraging for people who want to ensure they can cast their votes safely during the pandemic, and as I’ve written about before, perhaps no state is more critical to winning the White House in 2020 than Wisconsin. That said, our president has been saying extremely dangerous things recently to denigrate vote-by-mail (even though he and his press secretary Kayleigh McEnany regularly vote absentee) so that’s a real threat everyone should be preparing for.
I have two new stories to share this week!
The first is a reported piece for The American Prospect looking at new scholarship and debates around the Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC, which is the largest federal subsidy for low-income workers. About 22 million workers received EITC benefits in 2018, and it’s credited with lifting 5.6 million Americans out of poverty. This is a policy-oriented story, and I’ll say it matters now because a) it’s about welfare tied to work, and a lot of people losing their jobs these days. And b) expanding the EITC is a stated priority of Democrats in Congress and was of nearly all the Democratic presidential candidates including Joe Biden. So getting a clearer handle on how this works and doesn’t matters. You can read that here.
I also had a story today in Strikewave, a great labor-focused publication that’s about 1.5 years old. They’re really worth checking out, and I was happy to be commissioned to write this piece on non-profit unions. Like other industries with a lot of millennials and college-educated workers, nonprofits have seen a wave of recent union organizing. (Nonprofits include museums, charter schools, hospitals, think tanks, political campaigns, social service providers and more.) The tactics for organizing nonprofits differ from those at big companies like Amazon or Boeing… as do the tactics nonprofit employers use to dissuade their workers from joining unions.
I talked with longtime organizers for both for-profits and non-profits to learn how their efforts are tailored to these mission-driven groups that often have very difficult funding constraints, as well as workers with very different attitudes towards their jobs.
The piece also looks at why we’re seeing nonprofits announce union drives now even amidst the coronavirus. I think you’ll find this one interesting, and you can read it here.
To all my new readers, welcome to this newsletter, which I use primarily to share my freelance reporting. It’s probably not news to you that this is an extremely tough time for journalism, and this platform is one way I try to both distribute my work and help ensure I can do more of it in the future. If you like what you see and feel you’re in a position to support it, please consider subscribing. ($5 a month, or $36 a year).
And thanks as always to everyone for reading! Stay safe and keep wearing those masks.
And why clearing criminal records matters even more during the pandemic
|Rachel Cohen||May 20|
Good morning! Today at The Intercept I have a new story with Ryan Grim looking at some shipments sent in 2018 from Russia to a company in Panama owned by Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg. The exports, according to maritime shipping records, are classified as antiques more than 100 years old. Most intriguing, one of the items has a listed value of nearly $47 million, with a designated trade mark that translates to “FARBERGE RUSSIA.” In 2004, Vekselberg bought nine Imperial Farbergé eggs and opened a museum back in Russia to display them.
Vekselberg, one of the richest and most powerful men in Russia, was also one of the individuals to be sanctioned by the U.S government in 2018 as punishment to Moscow. He has American grandchildren, and it was reported earlier by Bloomberg that Vekselberg worried those sanctions might impede his grandchildren from inheriting some of his wealth. Three weeks after getting sanctions, according to these shipping documents, the high-priced antiquities left for Panama. 🤔🤔🤔
Also this week I have a new story at The Appeal, a criminal justice-focused news site, looking at a new and powerful movement to automatically clear criminal records for millions of people. The bipartisan movement — known “Clean Slate” — really took off in 2018. The thinking is that while right now millions of people are eligible to petition their state to have their records cleared, over 90 percent of those eligible don’t do so, for a host of reasons ranging from cost and time to legal complexity and a lack of information. But having a criminal record, researchers have found, makes it much harder to find housing and jobs, and even if you do get a job, you’re likely to have significant wage penalties or be the first to be fired when times get tough. One University of Michigan study from 2019 found those who did petition to have their records cleared saw their wages jump by 20 percent within one year. Oh and nearly half of all U.S. children today have at least one parent with a criminal record.
The idea behind Clean Slate bills is the states could automatically clear all who are eligible to have their records cleared, instead of making people go through the petition process themselves. There’s evidence this would not only increase economic opportunity for those with records, but save states money in the long-run.
Pennsylvania passed the first Clean Slate bill in 2018, and it took effect in June 2019. Over the last 10 months, an astonishing 34 million records have been sealed, for more than a million people. (The bill isn’t perfect: it doesn’t include any past felonies, and as my friend Sarah told me, because she volunteered doing expungement work this year in Philadelphia, many people were still ineligible because they had unpaid fines.)
Since then though, Utah and California have passed similar bills, and Michigan’s bill passed the House in November. Advocates expect the Michigan senate to take up the legislation soon, and if Michigan’s does pass, it would be the first to automatically clear some non-violent felonies, too.
My story looks at Washington State, where there was a Clean Slate campaign this year and a bill that passed both houses of the legislature. But in April Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed it, citing the coronavirus. I looked at how this important issue intersects with the economic and public health crisis we’re facing. You can read that here.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you’re all doing okay.
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