Akex Park

Alex Park

Writing Fellow

Alex Park is a recent graduate of the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. His work has been published in PBS/MediaShift, New America Media, allAfrica.com, Time.com, and the Believer.

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A recent graduate of the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Alex Park is an investigative journalist with an interest in global agriculture. He has blogged in South Africa and reported on Cyprus, and in college he published an award-winning paper on a 2008 period of anti-immigrant violence in South Africa, since cited in academic works. Currently, his interests lie explaining complex social systems—be they governments, conflicts, trade patterns, or waves of immigration—for a general audience. His work has been published on PBS/MediaShift, New America Media, allAfrica.com, the Believer, and Time.com

This is What a Russian Invasion of Ukraine Looks Like

| Thu Aug. 28, 2014 1:56 PM EDT

It has become quite hard for Vladimir Putin to deny that Russia's activities in Eastern Europe aren't benign. On Thursday, Ukraine's president, Petro Poroshenko, announced that "Russian forces have actually entered Ukraine." And at a State Department briefing, spokeswoman Jen Psaki called Russia's activities "an incursion and a violation of Ukraine's sovereignty."

The most striking evidence comes from NATO, which has released satellite photos of what it calls "concrete examples of Russian activity inside Ukraine."

Digital Globe/NATO

According to NATO, the image above depicts a Russian convoy carrying artillery in Krasnodon, an area of Ukraine currently controlled by pro-Russian separatists, on August 21.

Digital Globe/NATO

This shows artillery setting up in firing positions in Krasnodon. "This configuration is exactly how trained military professionals would arrange their assets on the ground, indicating that these are not unskilled amateurs, but Russian soldiers," a NATO press release notes.

Digital Globe/NATO

This image shows side-by-side photos of Rostov-on-Don, about 31 miles from the Ukrainian border, taken two months apart. The photo on the left, taken on June 19, shows the area mostly empty. The photo on the right shows the same area on August 20 occupied with tanks and other armored vehicles, cargo trucks, and tents. These units "are capable of attacking with little warning, and could potentially overwhelm and push-back Ukrainian units," according to NATO.

Digital Globe/NATO

According to NATO, this image shows Russian six artillery pieces, probably 6-inch howitzers, positioned six miles south of the Ukrainian border. The guns are pointed toward Ukraine.

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Earthquake Warning Systems Exist. But California Won't Pay for One.

| Tue Aug. 26, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
The aftermath of California's August 24 earthquake in Napa, California

As Bay Area residents clean their streets and homes after the biggest earthquake to hit California in 25 years rocked Napa Valley this weekend, scientists are pushing lawmakers to fund a statewide system that could warn citizens about earthquakes seconds before they hit.

California already has a system, called ShakeAlert, that uses a network of sensors around the state to detect earthquakes just before they happen. The system—a collaboration between the University of California-Berkeley, Caltech, the US Geological Survey (USGS), and various state offices—detects a nondestructive current called a P-wave that emanates from a quake's epicenter just before the destructive S-wave shakes the earth. ShakeAlert has successfully predicted several earthquakes, including this weekend's Napa quake. It could be turned into a statewide warning system. But so far, the money's not there.

"For years, seismic monitoring has been funded, essentially, on a shoestring," says Peggy Hellweg, operations manager at UC-Berkeley's seismological lab.

Maintaining ShakeAlert in its current state costs $15 million a year—a tiny fraction of the estimated $1 billion in damage caused by the Napa quake. Turning it into a statewide early-warning system would require installing new earthquake sensors throughout the state, building faster connections between sensors and data centers, and upgrading the data centers themselves. Since many of California's population centers, including the Bay Area, sit on fault lines, a warning system would likely give residents little time to prepare, ranging "from a few seconds to a few tens of seconds," depending on a person's proximity to the earthquake's epicenter, according to ShakeAlert's website—not enough time to leave a large building, but perhaps enough to take cover under a desk or table. Warnings could be deployed via text messages, push notifications, or publicly funded alert systems. Setting the whole thing up could cost as much as $80 million over five years—and keeping it running would cost more than $16 million annually, according to a USGS implementation plan published earlier this year.

In September 2013, the California legislature passed a bill requiring the state's emergency management office to work with private companies to develop an early warning system, but forbade it from pulling money from the state's general fund. The effort got a boost last month when the House appropriations committee approved $5 million for the system, the first time Congress has allocated money for a statewide system. But the project is still short on funding. 

An earthquake early-warning system would not be a unprecedented: Similar systems already exist in China, India, Italy, Romania, Taiwan, and Turkey. In Mexico City, a warning system connected to sensors 200 miles to the south gave residents two minutes' warning before a magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck earlier this year—enough time for many to leave buildings and congregate in open areas. 

More than 200 people were injured following last weekend's Napa earthquake, 17 of them seriously, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Among those hit was a boy who was hit by debris from a falling chimney. 

On Monday, the USGS said the likelihood of a "strong and possibly damaging" aftershock (magnitude 5.0 or higher) occurring within the next week was around 29 percent.

Compton to District Security Guards: Go Ahead, Bring Your AR-15s to School

| Fri Aug. 22, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

When students in the Compton Unified School District return to classrooms on Monday, some of them will have new pencils or notebooks. Their teachers will have new textbooks. But this year, the district's campus police will be getting an upgrade, too: AR-15 rifles.

The board of the Los Angeles-area school district approved a measure to allow the campus cops to carry the new guns in July. The district's police chief, William Wu, told the board that equipping school police with semi-automatic AR-15s is intended to ensure student safety.

"This is our objective—save lives, bottom line," Wu told the board.

Crime is a serious problem in Compton, an independent jurisdiction south of downtown Los Angeles. In the 12 months preceding July, the city of nearly 100,000 experienced 28 murders, making it the 11th-deadliest neighborhood in the county, according to a data analysis by the Los Angeles Times.

But the choice to make Compton school police the latest local law enforcement agency to adopt military-style weapons was less about dealing with street crime than it was about preventing more exotic incidents like mass shootings. At the board meeting, Wu cited an FBI report released in January that found that 5 percent of "active shooters"— or shooters which are conducting an ongoing assault on a group of people—wore body armor, which can stop most bullets fired from handguns. To make his case, Wu cited a range of examples, including the Mumbai terrorist attacks and the University of Texas shooting in 1966, in which a student killed 16 people from the campus clock tower, out of range of police sidearms. (The student was eventually killed when a group of police climbed the tower and shot him at close range.)

"They will continue until they are stopped," Wu said, at which point a board member interjected.

"No, they will continue until we stop them," he said. "Compton Unified School Police…holding it down."

"These rifles give us greater flexibility in dealing with a person with bad intent who comes onto any of our campuses," Wu said in a statement. "The officers will keep the rifles in the trunks of their cars, unless they are needed."

Compton is not the first district in the Southern California to allow AR-15s on its campuses. At the meeting, Wu said that Los Angeles, Baldwin Park, Santa Ana, Fontana, and San Bernardino all allow their officers to use the same weapons. 

Compton school police last made news in May 2013, when a group of parents and students filed a suit against the department, alleging a pattern of racial profiling and abuse targeting Latino students. The complaint said that officers beat, pepper-sprayed, and put a chokehold on a bystander who was recording an arrest with his iPod. The group also claimed that Compton school police used excessive force against students and parents who complained that English-as-a-second-language programs were underfunded. (The case is ongoing.)

Wu said at the board meeting that seven officers have already been trained to use the new weapons. He said all officers would be purchasing their own weapons. The guns will be the officers' personal property, but they could be bringing them to work as early as September.

The Government May Soon Send This Reporter to Jail. Here Are the Embarrassing Secrets He Exposed.

| Tue Aug. 19, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
James Risen speaks at the University of California, Berkeley

The Obama administration has fought a years-long court battle to force longtime New York Times national security correspondent James Risen to reveal the source for a story in his 2006 book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. Risen may soon serve jail time for refusing to out his source. The fight has drawn attention to Obama's less-than-stellar track record on press freedom—in a recent interview, Risen called the president "the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation." But lost in the ruckus are the details of what Risen revealed. Here's what has the government so upset.

In State of War, Risen revealed a secret CIA operation, code-named Merlin, that was intended to undermine the Iranian nuclear program. The plan—originally approved by president Bill Clinton, but later embraced by George W. Bush—was to pass flawed plans for a trigger system for a nuclear weapon to Iran in the hopes of derailing the country's nuclear program. "It was one of the greatest engineering secrets in the world," Risen wrote in State of War, "providing the solution to one of a handful of problems that separated nuclear powers such as the United States and Russia from the rogue countries like Iran that were desperate to join the nuclear club but had so far fallen short."

The flaws in the trigger system were supposed to be so well hidden that the blueprints would lead Iranian scientists down the wrong path for years. But Merlin's frontman, a Russian nuclear scientist and defector then on the CIA's payroll, spotted the flaws almost immediately. On the day of the handoff in Vienna in winter 2000, the Russian, not wanting to burn a bridge with the Iranians, included an apologetic note with his delivery, explaining that the design had some problems. Shortly after receiving the plans, one member of the Iranian mission changed his travel plans and flew back to Tehran, presumably with the blueprints—and the note—in hand. Merlin did not wreck the Iranian nuclear program—in fact, Risen wrote, the operation could have accelerated it. 

In a sworn affidavit filed in 2011, and in a recently rejected appeal to the US Supreme Court, Risen has argued that his reporting served the public good. Published at a time when military action in Iran seemed possible, State of Fear revealed how much of the effort to gather information on Iran's nuclear capability was not just shoddy but dangerous—even, in the case of Operation Merlin, helping Iran get closer to building a nuclear weapon. 

The Bush administration did not see it that way. In 2008, Bush's Justice Department subpoenaed Risen, demanding that he reveal his source—or face jail time for contempt of court. After taking office in 2009, the Obama administration renewed the Bush-era subpoena and continued to try to identify and prosecute Risen's source. Justice Department staff believe they know who the source was—an ex-CIA operations officer named Jeffrey Sterling, who was previously an on-the-record source for Risen—but they want Risen to confirm their hunch and fill in a few details. In legal filings, Justice Department lawyers have called Risen a witness to "serious crimes that implicate the national security of the United States" and argued that "there are few scenarios where the United States' interests in securing information is more profound and compelling than in a criminal prosecution like this one."  

If Risen is called to court to testify but fails to show up or refuses to talk, he's likely to become the first reporter from a major news organization since Judith Miller in 2005 to be sentenced to jail time for refusing to divulge a source. (In 2006, journalist Josh Wolf was imprisoned for 226 days after refusing to comply with a federal subpoena for a video he took of a San Francisco protest.)

This story has been amended to clarify that Wolf, and not Miller, was the last journalist to be imprisoned for refusing to disclose a source.

The St. Louis Area Has a Long History of Shameful Racial Violence

| Mon Aug. 18, 2014 8:45 AM EDT
A mob blocks a street car during the East St. Louis Riot of July 1917 University of Massachusetts-Amherst Libraries

The shooting of Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent riots, protests, and police crackdown have highlighted the area's long history of racial strife. One chapter from that history, a century-old summer riot just fourteen miles away from Ferguson, in East St. Louis, Illinois, shows how black Americans were subjected to racial violence from the moment they arrived in the region.

In 1917, East St. Louis was crowded with factories. Jobs were abundant. But as World War I halted the flow of immigration from Eastern Europe, factory recruiters started looking toward the American South for black workers. Thousands came, and as competition for jobs increased, a labor issue became a racial one.

East St. Louis' angry white workers found sympathy from the leaders of the local Democratic party, who feared that the influx of black, mostly Republican voters threatened their electoral dominance. In one particularly striking parallel to today's political landscape, local newspapers warned of voter fraud, alleging that black voters were moving between northern cities to swing local elections as part of a far-reaching conspiracy called "colonization," according to the documentary series Living in St. Louis.

A cartoon from the time of the riot, lambasting then-president Woodrow Wilson for making the world "safe for democracy" while ignoring the plight of East St. Louis. Wikipedia

That May, a local aluminum plant brought in black workers to replace striking white ones. Soon, crowds of whites gathered downtown, at first protesting the migration, then beating blacks and destroying property. On July 1, a group of white men drove through a black neighborhood, firing a gun out their car window. (The perpetrators were never caught.) A few hours later, another car drove through the neighborhood. Black residents fired at it, killing two police officers.

On July 2, as news of the killings got out, white residents went tearing through black neighborhoods, beating and killing blacks and burning some 300 houses as National Guard troops either failed to respond or fled the scene. The official toll counted 39 black and eight white people dead, but others speculated that more than a hundred people died in what is still considered one of the worst incidents of racial violence in twentieth-century America. Afraid for their lives, more than six thousand blacks left the city after the riot.

That the United States was then fighting in Europe to defend democracy while failing to protect its own citizens was not lost on Marcus Garvey, soon to become one of the most famous civil rights leaders of his time: "This is no time for fine words, but a time to lift one's voice against the savagery of a people who claim to be the dispensers of democracy," he said to cheers at a speech in Harlem on July 8. "I do not know what special meaning the people who slaughtered the Negroes of East St. Louis have for democracy... but I do know that it has no meaning for me."

Top image credit: STL250

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