Jaeah is a former reporter at Mother Jones. Her writings have appeared in The Atlantic, the Guardian, Wired, Christian Science Monitor,Global Post,Huffington Post,Talking Points Memo, and Grist. She tweets at @jaeahjlee.
Hopeful that the roof wouldn't cave in, this bakery stayed open after the blast to feed victims and responders.
Dana Liebelson, Jaeah Lee, and Tasneem RajaApr. 18, 2013 4:21 PM
There's a Czech bakery, deli, and gas station combo in tiny West, Texas, that's world-famous for serving up fruit kolaches and hot chubbies to locals and tourists driving on I-35 between Dallas and Austin, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the last 29 years. Last night was no exception. In the wake of the massive explosion and fire that rocked a fertilizer plant just three miles down the road, Czech Stop kept its doors open—and the kolaches coming—almost without interruption.
"I rushed up there after it happened because one of my employees said the ceiling was falling in," says Barbara Schissler, president of the Czech Stop empire, who's worked there since it opened in 1983. "One of our freelance carpenters recommended that we close the doors, but when I showed up, I saw only the ceiling tiles were buckling, so I reopened. The only thing we did was cut the gas pumps, because we were expecting another blast."
When the plant exploded at 8 p.m., there were about seven employees on shift. Fifteen minutes later, fire trucks and police cars started rushing down the street to the site of the accident. Not long after, injured victims started walked in.
"Two women in a truck stopped by. One's leg was bandaged and bulging, and she had a few cuts on her arms and legs," says Schissler. "I don't know why they decided to stop here first. When you're in shock, you're not always thinking. We did whatever we could to make them feel comfortable, gave them ice water." Several more people with cuts and bruises stopped by through the night, but Schissler said her usual customers were missing. "All the bakery regulars were out there on the scene, helping out."
In the morning, Czech Stop was ready to help first responders who stopped by, donating cases of water and handing out free food and drink. The store is also planning on donating baked goods to the Red Cross.
Like many local bars, diners, and coffee shops in many other towns rocked by calamity, Czech Stop has transformed virtually overnight into a hub of refuge. After December's school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, the owners of Blue Colony Diner fed hundreds of volunteers, policemen, firefighters, and first responders, earning the nickname "The Food Angels." The morning after Hurricane Sandy struck, David T. Holmes III turned It's a Wrap, his lunch cafe in Plainfield, New Jersey, into a relief station for 10 days, offering victims free coffee, soup, power, and a place to sleep. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Joann Guidos kept Kajun's Pub open so that "the lonely and broke would not endure the ordeal alone." Homeowners fleeing the deadly June 2012 wildfires in Colorado congregated at Bob's Coffee Shop in Laporte, to figure out, over danishes, where the megafire was headed next.
A Jalopnik writer from Texas says when he first heard about the West Fertilizer explosion, his first thought was whether anyone was hurt. His second thought was whether the Czech Stop was okay. "It's no surprise that, when I turned on the local news last night, the news producers had thought to call the Czech Stop and put an employee on the air," he wrote. "It's what everyone knows."
This tiny community of around 3,000 boasts a remarkably vibrant and long-standing Czech heritage. In 1859, a popular Czech reverend immigrated to Galveston to minister to German Protestants, and many of his compatriots followed. By 1990, almost 300,000 Texans claimed some Czech ancestry according to the Texas State Historical Association, seeding this part of Texas with Eastern European languages, cultures, and cuisines. "Most notably, the Czech pastry 'kolache' (pronounced koh-law-chee) is still served today in restaurants and rest stops from Columbus near Houston all the way up to West," says Jalopnik's Hardigree. "It's a soft, sweet dough filled with some fruit, cheese, chocolate or some mixture of all of those. It's fantastic."
Czech Stop has been a fixture in town since it was opened in 1983 by Bill Polk, a former marine who bought the shop from a national chain and took it over with one employee, a small menu of sausage kolache, and a handful of fruit and poppy seed pastries. Its got lots of Czech neighbors in town. There's Picha's Czech-American Restaurant, known for its sausages and kraut. You can pick up a kroje at Maggie's Fabric Patch, a dress traditionally worn by Czechs and Slovaks at communions, weddings, and funerals. A Czech-language radio station broadcast from here until just a few years ago. West is also home to a branch of Sokol, a Czech organization that started in Ennis, Texas with a mission to help young community members become leaders through the practice of gymnastics.
Today some 75 percent of the town can claim some Czech origin according to Radio Praha, the Czech Republic's state radio station. Today, the Czech Ambassador to the United States is scheduled to visit West in a show of support and solidarity."The Czech authorities and the media are closely watching the latest news from this little outpost of Czech life in Texas," writes Radio Praha reporter Rob Cameron. West's mayor, Tommy Muska, agrees. "It's a lovely little town. Everybody's got a Czech last name it seems," he said. (Muska's Czech, too.) Author and journalist Brendan McNally, who grew up in Dallas but now lives in Pelhřimov with his family, tells Radio Praha that Czech Stop’s kolaches put West on the map.
Last night's tragedy has hit close to home in more ways than one: The bakery's office manager lived three blocks away from the fertilizer plant, and lost her house to the explosion. But Schissler and her crew plan to keep serving up kolaches and coffee 24 hours a day, business as usual. "We've never seen anything like this, but we've never closed a single day in 29 years," Schissler says. "You bet we're staying open."
We import millions of firearms from nations with far stricter gun control laws than the United States.
Josh Harkinson and Jaeah LeeApr. 4, 2013 6:00 AM
In 1791, America's founding fathers enacted a constitutional right to bear arms, in part to help citizen militias protect the homeland against foreign invaders. Some 300 years later, foreigners have become some of the Second Amendment's biggest beneficiaries and shrillest advocates. In 2009, the United States imported 3.9 million guns, some 16 times more than we exported. Those imports accounted for 43 percent of new guns available to Americans that year. The vast majority—think Beretta, Glock, Taurus, and other name brands—came from countries with far stricter gun control laws than we have in the United States.
Every time another mass shooter unleashes a torrent of bullets in a school or theater, the world puzzles over America's permissive approach to gun ownership. A story following up on the Sandy Hook massacre in Austria's largest daily, Krone, noted the apparent link between "lax weapons laws" in the United States and our "high rate of gun killings, compared to other western nations." But the newspaper didn't mention how Austrian gun makers profit from and help perpetuate those lax weapons laws. In 2009, a whopping 67 percent of Austria's gun exports went to the United States. Here's the breakdown for our top 10 foreign suppliers.
Which state will dominate in this tournament of lady-haters?
Kate Sheppard, Jaeah Lee, and Tasneem RajaMar. 21, 2013 6:00 AM
Despite being Women's History Month, March has seen relentless attacks on ladies' rights. As soon as one state passes some outrageous woman-restricting bill, another is right behind with something even, well, outrageous-er.The "state-by-state race to the bottom on women's health," as the president of Planned Parenthood put it, inspired us to set up our own March Madness bracket to determine the national champion in the War on Women.
ROUND ONE: THE MEAN SIXTEEN
No doubt about it, these states all brought their A games to this season's War on Women. From imposing onerous new building codes on abortion clinics to threatening to throw doctors in jail for providing life-saving abortions, these contenders made it all but impossible for women to obtain (still constitutionally protected) abortions. The qualifiers:
Louisiana (1) vs. Arkansas (16)
Louisiana barrels into the tournament as top-seed in its region and the expected overall champion, since the anti-choice crusaders Americans United for Life crowned it the "Most Pro-Life State" earlier this year. The state enacted a 20-week ban last June, with fines and prison sentences for doctors who violate it.
Plucky underdog Arkansas passed a new law banning all abortions after 20 weeks earlier this month, shooting over the veto of the state's Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe. But that wasn't enough for legislators, who followed with a 12-week ban days later, also over Beebe's veto.
Oklahoma (8) vs. Texas (9)
Oklahoma brings a middling offense: Women there must undergo state-required anti-abortion counseling, can't use their private health insurance to pay for elective abortions, and can't get an abortion after 20 weeks.
Meanwhile, have you seen what Texas did to Planned Parenthood? That's on top of an ultra-strict ultrasound law and mandatory 24-hour waiting period for an abortion. Gov. Rick Perry kicked off 2013 with a pledge to "continue to pass laws to ensure that [abortions] are as rare as possible." Perry is basically the John Wooden of anti-woman madness.
Utah (5) vs. Idaho (12)
Utah passed a new law last year establishing a 72-hour waiting period for an abortion. The state also bans women from using private health insurance to cover an abortion, unless her life is at risk or if she's the victim of rape or incest.
Back in 2011, Idaho passed a ban on abortions occurring 20 weeks post-conception, which a judge struck down as unconstitutional on March 7. Women here also have to wait 24 hours before they can have an abortion and can't use their private insurance for elective abortions.
Arizona (4) vs.Colorado (13)
Last year, Arizona became the sixth state to pass a 20-week abortion ban. But its law was even more extreme, as it actually cuts off access 18 weeks post-conception. (Basically, they start the shot clock before women even gain possession.) This state also passed a law last year making it legal for doctors to withhold medical information that might encourage a patient to seek an abortion, like fetal abnormalities.
Colorado voters get bad marks (in the logic of the War on Women) for twice rejecting a so-called "personhood" ballot measure that would grant the rights of adult humans to fertilized eggs, in 2008 and 2010. But anti-choice lawmakers have continued trying to ban all abortions with a House bill that stalled in committee, and Garfield County also voted to defund its local Planned Parenthood provider.
Mississippi (3) vs. Tennessee (14)
Mississippi is down to one abortion clinic, and anti-choice crusaders are taking aim. Even though voters rejected a "personhood" ballot measure in 2011, abortion foes and their up-tempo offense are trying to get it on the ballot yet again.
Tennessee is an up-and-comer to watch in future seasons. Right now it has more liberal abortion laws than many Southern states, but in 2014, voters will decidevia a ballot measure whether or not women have the right to an abortion. Meanwhile, anti-abortion officials have been active at the county level, defunding the Memphis chapter of Planned Parenthood in 2011.
Virginia (6) vs. Alabama (11)
Under public pressure last year, Virginia lawmakers backpedaled from forcing women to undergo medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds. But the state is moving forward with strict new building codes for clinics that could put a number of providers on the bench—and out of business.
Last month, the Alabama House advanced the Orwellian "Women's Health and Safety Act," which threatens to shut down the state's five remaining clinics. It includes a requirement that doctors have admitting privileges at a local hospital and sets tough new building codes for clinics.
South Dakota (7) vs. Michigan (10)
There is only one abortion clinic in South Dakota, which many women drive hours to reach. To get an abortion, women have to visit a doctor first, wait 72 hours, visit an anti-abortion "crisis pregnancy center," and listen to a mandated script that will tell them false information about abortion risks. Now yet another law, passed on February 28, excludes weekends and holidays from the 72-hour waiting period, meaning some women will have to wait five or six days. This state has one of the toughest defenses in the country: a legal-defense fund wholly devoted to preserving these anti-choice laws.
Michigan got a lot of attention last year when Democratic Rep. Lisa Brown was T-ed up and barred from using the word "vagina" during floor debate over an anti-abortion bill. The state later passed its "abortion mega-bill" requiring abortion providers to meet the same standards as "ambulatory surgical centers," outlawing telemed abortions, and implementing new rules for the disposal of fetal remains that would require them to be treated like the body of a dead person, rather than treating them like other forms of medical waste.
Kansas (2) vs. North Dakota (15)
A perennial favorite in Anti-Woman Madness, abortion foes in second-seeded Kansas have committed to making it the first "abortion-free state." In 2011, the state passed onerous clinic regulations that threatened to close nearly every clinic in the state. They were later were blocked by a judge, but the legal fight continues. Meanwhile, the state House is currently considering a group of measures that would define life as beginning at conception and would require doctors to give patients medically inaccurate information linking abortion to breast cancer. Lawmakers did, however, remove a provision that would ban anyone who works at an abortion clinic from volunteering at their kids' schools.
North Dakota's Legislature only meets every other year, so 2013 has been a rebuilding year. They have managed to make quite a comeback in 2013, banning abortion as early as six weeks. Anti-abortion lawmakers also pitched a fit earlier this year about a sex-ed program for teenagers that Planned Parenthood was going to help lead.
ROUND TWO: THE INFAMOUS EIGHT
Arkansas (16) beats Louisiana (1) (!) A stunning upset! Louisiana may have been the top seed, but then Gov. Bobby Jindal came out last December in favor of over-the-counter access to oral contraception, knee-capping Louisiana's race to Worst State for Women. Meanwhile, Arkansas' offense has been all over the place, even managing to go backdoor on Gov. Mike Beebe's veto of their 12- and 20-week abortion bans, leading Arkansas to a shocking victory. Nobody saw this coming…but many will pay consequences.
Texas (9) beats Oklahoma (8) Texas has been chucking up three-pointers from deep all season, which allowed them to cruise to an easy victory over Oklahoma.
Utah (5) beats Idaho (12) This was a tough match up, as the two states look pretty similar on paper. Utah eked out a win, though, since the court called a technical foul on Idaho's 20-week ban.
Arizona (4) beats Colorado (13)
Colorado looked lackluster next to Arizona, which cruised to an easy victory. I mean, starting the shot clock on abortion before a woman even conceives? That's serious game, Arizona.
Mississippi (3) beats Tennessee (14)
Tennessee didn't seem to even leave the locker room for this one. But then again, Mississippi's rare status as a state with just one abortion clinic spelled victory from the start.
Virginia (6) beats Alabama (11)
Virginia, led by point guard (and attorney general) Ken Cuccinelli, has really been making a name for itself this season. No surprise here.
South Dakota (7) beats Michigan (10)
Michigan has shown some impressive ballhandling in the past year, demonstrating all kinds of new anti-abortion plays, but South Dakota's measure banning women from thinking on the weekend was the kind of gritty performance that wins championships.
North Dakota (15) beats Kansas (2) (!!)
Another jaw-dropping upset! Let's face it, North Dakota wouldn't have even qualified last year. But they've been running a full-court press with their time restrictions on abortion this season, and it lead to a shocking victory over second-seeded Kansas. Hey, it's called Madness for a reason.
ROUND THREE: THE FINAL FOUR
Arkansas (16) vs. Texas (9)
This was a nail-biter. The score was tied with seconds left on the clock, but Arkansas drained two free throws with its 12- and 20-week bans to seal the win.
Arizona (4) vs. Utah (5)
Demonstrating some of their creative plays developed over the past season, Arizona cruised to an easy victory over Utah, which seems to have grown complacent this season with few new abortion restrictions.
Mississippi (3) vs. Virginia (6) Virginia's transvaginal probes couldn't hold up to Mississippi's run-and-gun offense, which has included "personhood" measures and regulatory attempts to wipe out its sole abortion provider.
North Dakota (15) vs. South Dakota (7)
The Dakotas matchup was sure to be a tough one. While South Dakota took an early lead with its waiting-period law, North Dakota broke out its stingy man-to-man defense with its six-week ban, clinching the Midwest Madness title.
ROUND FOUR: The CHAMPIONSHIP!
Arizona (4) vs. Arkansas (16)
Underdog Arkansas was all over the boards with its now-infamous governor-silencing offense, while Arizona just seemed distracted.
North Dakota (15) vs. Mississippi (3)
Given that both of these states are down to one abortion provider, this was expected to be a tight one. But North Dakota showed some real zeal for hating on women with their most recent legislative ball work banning abortions as early as six weeks, and that's what it took to regress—er, advance—in the march to victory.
It seems nothing short of an all-out ban on abortion could have topped North Dakota's late-breaking offensive, just passed on March 15: cutting off abortion access as early as six weeks after conception. Many women won't even know they're pregnant within that timeframe, but North Dakota just won't relent: The state is still pushing for that ever-elusive (because, you know, abortion is a constitutional right and all) statewide ban. North Dakota has proven that it's willing to go the extra mile to win the dubious distinction of Worst State for Women.
Thanks for playing along, and remember: whenever these states win, women lose.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Arizona, not Arkansas, advanced to the championship.
Dozens of clinics have shut down in Texas, leaving nearly 200,000 women in search of affordable health care.
Jaeah LeeMar. 14, 2013 6:00 AM
In the past two years, Texas legislators slashed funds for family planning and passed up $30 million a year in federal Medicaid money, largely to squeeze Planned Parenthood out of the state's women's health programs. Last week, hundreds gathered at the south steps of the Texas State Capitol in Austin to protest the resulting public health mess: Researchers say nearly 200,000 Texas women have lost or could lose access to contraception, cancer screenings, and basic preventive care, especially in low-income, rural parts of the state. I reported from the rally:
Given that anti-choice legislators in other states could draw inspiration from Texas's "winning" strategy to defund Planned Parenthood—several have tried and failed in recent years—it's worth surveying the damage.
About a year after Texas slashed its family-planning budget by two-thirds, with 50 clinics shutting down as a result, the Texas Policy Evaluation Project surveyed 300 pregnant women seeking an abortion in Texas. Nearly half said they were "unable to access the birth control that they wanted to use" in the three months before they became pregnant. Among the reasons: cost, lack of insurance, inability to find a clinic, and inability get a prescription. The state's health commission says Texas will see nearly 24,000 unplanned births between 2014 and 2015 thanks to these cuts, raising state and federal taxpayer's Medicaid costs by up to $273 million.
Nearly half of the women said they couldn't access birth control in the three months before they got pregnant.
The Planned Parenthood clinics that anti-choice legislators booted from the state's Women's Health Program serviced nearly 50 percent of the program's patients. Along with contraceptive counseling, the clinics provided basic screenings for cancer, hypertension, and other key problems. There's no shortage of need: women in Texas suffer high rates of STIs and unintended pregnancies compared to national figures, and the state ranks 50th for diabetes prevalence in women. Nonetheless, Republican lawmakers went after the clinics in 2011, thanks to their long-standing beef with the organization, and forfeited tens of millions in Medicaid reimbursements to the Women's Health Program so they could defund Planned Parenthood clinics without breaking any federal rules governing how states have to spend Medicaid money.
Despite losing its highest-volume providers, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission insists the revamped, wholly state-run and state-funded Women's Health Program can reshuffle all the displaced patients and keep providing the same levels of care as before. But last October, researchers at George Washington University examined five Texas counties and found that in order to effectively replace Planned Parenthood, other clinics would need to increase their caseloads two to five times.
Congress considers banning weapons that have caused carnage in shopping malls, schools, and city streets.
Mark Follman, Gavin Aronsen, and Jaeah LeeFeb. 27, 2013 7:01 AM
The political fortunes of the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013 have looked dim from the start. But as Congress considers the new legislation put forth by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), one thing is clear: If it were to pass, the bill would outlaw highly lethal firearms that dozens of mass shooters in the United States have used to unleash carnage.
More than half of the killers we studied in our investigation of 62 mass shootings over the last three decades possessed weapons that would be banned by Feinstein's bill, including various semi-automatic rifles, guns with military features, and handguns using magazines with more than 10 rounds. The damage these weapons can cause has been on grim display since last summer, from Aurora to Milwaukee to Minneapolis to Newtown, where attacks carried out with them left a total of 118 people injured and dead.
"They got the most shots," said a Chicago teenager who prefers high-capacity magazines. "You can shoot forever."
The new legislation aims to outlaw weapons that let a shooter fire a large number of bullets quickly without having to reload. Law enforcement officials we consulted generally considered that to be a reasonable approach for distinguishing between firearms used for sport or self-defense and military-style weapons designed to maximize body counts.
Using the parameters of the new bill, we dove deeper into the data on mass shootings that we first began gathering in July after the slaughter at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. We dug up additional specific details on the perpetrators' guns and ammunition devices (often elusive, particularly with older cases). In our initial analysis we had used broader criteria for "assault weapons," including some modified shotguns and bolt-action rifles; now, our more detailed chart and data set use four categories of firearms: semi-automatic handguns, rifles, revolvers, and shotguns. Across those four categories, we account for assault weapons and guns using high-capacity magazines that would be specifically outlawed by the new legislation. The data includes all guns recovered at the scene in each case, though not all of them were used in the crimes. Using this criteria we found:
42 guns with high-capacity magazines, across 31 mass-shooting cases
20 assault weapons, across 14 mass-shooting cases
33 cases involving assault weapons or high-capacity magazines (or both)
A total of 48 of these weapons (accounting for the overlap between the two categories) would be illegal under the new legislation.*
Feinstein's Assault Weapons Ban of 2013 isn't just about mass shootings, of course. By far the most common weapons used in these cases are semi-automatic handguns—the type of weapon also at the heart of the daily gun violence plaguing American communities. Banning high-capacity magazines may be especially key with regard to these guns, not only because they're popular among mass shooters, but also because they tend to increase casualties in street violence, as a veteran ATF agent explained to us in a recent interview.
The devices have appeal on the streets. A Chicago high school student recently described his preference for 30-round magazines to a reporter for This American Life: "They got the most shots. You can shoot forever. Let out 15. Run back to where you going. Somebody else come out and let out five more. There you go."