The Rights Stuff

Africa Ho! (And How You Can Help)

| Thu Apr. 7, 2011 8:25 PM EDT

I've recently embarked on an epic reporting trip. Currently, I'm in The Hague, the Netherlands, where I'm spending the rest of the week at the International Criminal Court, including some quality time with Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo. Next week, I'm headed to Congo. Not to be dramatic or anything, but I honestly can't tell you why—not because I'd have to kill you, but because it does involve a lot of other people having been killed. Some tweeters have wondered why MoJo is doing extra fundraising for this trip, and I'm happy to answer that, as the racker-up of the expenses: Keeping me and everyone else involved safe in Congo means having to bring some of the standard local-support staff in with me from the United States, plus extra layers of security for those who will be assisting me who are already on the ground. What I can say now is that this story is violent and fascinating and has implications that reach back to the United States; that it explores much-needed information about global foreign policy; that it should damn well be written but requires a budget that would be green-lighted by only a fool or a magazine that knows it can rely on its readers to support exceptional if not-revenue-generating content. And then there's another, unrelated story in Uganda, one that will be deep and personal and ultimately, I think, surprising.

Can I quantify "epic" reporting trip? Sure. About $25,000—just for the reporting part. Even employing the highest level of Midwestern resourcefulness and thrift.

Anyway, I'll be sending lots of updates (as it's safe to do so) from the road and, of course, producing a couple of features when I get back. And then I guess we can decide whether it costs more to report them, or more not to.

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Fun Petrochemical-Accident Fact of the Day

| Sat Apr. 2, 2011 9:11 AM EDT

From fellow panelist Steve Lerner at the Future of the South Symposium: The Gulf Oil Spill After One Year conference this weekend:

Between 2005 and 2009 Louisiana's 17 oil refineries reported 2,607 chemical accidents to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. That's 10 per week. 

(Read the rest of the stats in the refinery-accident report that came from here.)

"Be A Man of Your Word and Dish Out This Money."

| Thu Mar. 31, 2011 2:22 PM EDT
Community members wait to speak with Kenneth Feinberg.

"My name is Anna Luke. I don't need to say anything; you know me. I was promised by you not once, not twice, but three times that you will handle this. I'm asking you to stay good to your word."

Luke was one of several dozen Gulf Coast residents who showed up at a town-hall meeting in Mathews, Louisiana, earlier this week to give a piece of their minds to Kenneth Feinberg, the Obama administration's oil-spill-compensation czar. Feinberg, who's previously been the White House's executive-pay czar and overseen the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, is in charge of a $20 billion fund set aside by BP to help fishermen, oil workers, and others directly affected by last year's disastrous oil spill. Eleven months after the Deepwater Horizon sank, many like Luke say they're still waiting for their checks. 

Scenes from Monday's meeting: 

Kenneth FeinbergKenneth FeinbergThe abandoned Wal-Mart in Mathews has been reincarnated as the Lafourche Parish government building. For the meeting, a corner of it has been set up with a podium facing the table where Feinberg and a panel of officials sit. The rows of chairs for members of the public are full, so lots of people stand around the edges.

Yet for a moment, half the people who have chairs are standing, too, because Feinberg has just stopped a woman named Cathy Blanchard who was speaking. When she said, "We haven't been paid," he cut in, "In your case." And then she turned exasperatedly to the crowd behind her and said, "Stand up if you haven't been paid."

Blanchard's husband was one of the seven cleanup workers who were hospitalized last May. She says that her husband hasn't been reimbursed for his hospital bills and they've since been sent to collections. "I'd like you to be a man of your word and dish out this money," she says.

 


SOME PEOPLE WHO are getting paid don't deserve it, a lot of people at the meeting say. And people who do deserve it are slipping through the cracks. Feinberg doesn't believe that undeserving recipients are getting money. "I don't buy it. If you think this money is going to strippers"—he raises his voice, and keeps it raised—"you are incorrect! If you are hearing that [the Gulf Coast Claims Facility] is not paying fishermen, oystermen, crabbers, or shrimpers, that isn't true. I am telling you it just isn't true! This idea that almost $4 billion is going to waiters, and strippers, and barbers, is ridiculous!" Earlier, he said the GCCF, which he administers, has paid out 200,000 claims ("To who?" the audience yelled) totaling $3.7 billion, and had said then, too, "If you think this $3.7 billion is going to STRIPPERS and waiters..."

 


"I'M A CRABBER. I'm not a fisherman, I'm not an oysterman, I do crabs. I turned in every piece of paperwork I have but my dog license and my marriage certificate [for claims processing]. In 2010 I was half a million off on my business from 2009, and 2009 was even a bad year. I bought 7,000 pounds of crab today, it's the first time since last June we've seen any crab. The guys in Baltimore tell me they don't want it. They took Gulf seafood off their menu in Baltimore, in Chicago. They're live. They got about 24 to 30 hours they're good. After that they're junk. You wanna buy 'em from me? I'm half a million off, and I got a claim check for $100,000."

 


Dean BlanchardDean BlanchardDEAN BLANCHARD IS locally famous for being charming. Also for owning the largest shrimp business around. Shrimping king. LSU fan, chain-smoker. "Welcome to Wal-Mart!" he says to Feinberg, and everyone starts laughing, and laughs harder when he adds, "I'm practicing for my new job." This past weekend, Blanchard was at the International Boston Seafood Show. He went to dinner with the buyers from Winn Dixie, and unfortunately they showed up with a USA Today showing oil on Grand Isle again. That's oil from a new spill, but BP's oil is still washing up there, too.

"BP chose to sink the oil and spray dispersants all over and kill the marine life and the marine life is our life," Blanchard says. "Every day someone comes to me and says they see oil: sport fishers, shrimp fishers. My office is on the water and every day I see it." Several times he acknowledges that Feinberg has a hard job. "I wouldn't want your job," he says. Yet: "You got a raise. BP must be happy with you. You must be happy with them. Make us happy now."

 


FEINBERG: I DO not represent BP."

Crowd: "Boooo!" "Yeah right!"

 

 

FEINBERG, INTERRUPTING A person complaining about not being compensated for paralyzing headaches: "You gotta demonstrate that the physical injury is due to the spill. We are paying physical injury claims."

Crowd: "LIE! LIE!" "You are such a lying piece of shit!"

 

 

captionYET ANOTHER MAN says he has incapacitating headaches, though he explains (as do the other men) that he is not the type of man who just gets headaches. But these headaches, you can't even understand how painful they are. "I'm not trying to get rich," he says. "I'm just trying to come out where I was before. I've received seven percent what I'm owed. I have all my documentation, and I put it together in this packet for you. This is the fourth time I'm giving these documents to you. Tony Hayward said he wanted his life back? Everybody in this building wants his life back."

 

 

ONLY ONE OF the community members who stands in line to speak says he does not have a claim to settle with BP. But his son, who has a speech impediment, does. So the father waits to ask why his son, a fisherman who makes $17,000 to $18,000 a year, got denied when he only asked for $8,000 in compensation. His claim had all the right records, a letter from a politician...

Feinberg, who's been reclining in his chair, leans toward the microphone. "If he's been denied, there's a reason. You need to have shrimp tickets—"

"I have shrimp tickets!" the man yells, his voice wavering. "I drove to Baton Rouge to get it!"

Feinberg says, "I'll take a look."

 


THERE ARE A couple forms of encouragement that Feinberg offers to those who come before him. Like: "I will do my best." Or: "We'll take a second look."

The woman whose husband was furloughed by the oil company he works for because of the spill—"Not because of the moratorium?" Feinberg asks; no, she says, because of the spill, dammit, because he worked on a rig that was right by the exploding Deepwater Horizon and had to be shut down regardless of the ensuing deepwater drilling ban—she will have her claim looked at again.

We'll take a look at your claim. Judging by the applause she receives from the audience, one woman's response to this line seems to speak for many in attendance. She says her husband's diagnosis says clearly that he's sick "due to chemical exposure." But there's been no compensation; she had no choice but to finally pay his ambulance bill, putting it on her credit card just today. When Feinberg responds that he'll look at her claim, her shoulders sink. "I work in the claims business," she says. "If I 'look' at a claim all…day…long, it won't get paid."

BP Still Doesn't Want You to See Its Tarballs

| Wed Mar. 30, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Lots has changed on Elmer's Island. Nearly a year after the great oilpocalypse of 2010, this Louisiana wildlife refuge about 100 miles south of New Orleans isn't crawling with teams of cleanup workers raking big black pools of crude off the sand; there's no cleanup machinery or equipment; the only immediately visible remnants of the BP/Deepwater Horizon spill are the occasional tarballs, big as a kid's head, that wash onto the shore.

Not that I can just waltz onto this public beach to see all that—not everything has changed. Like some lame iteration of Groundhog Day, the hundredth time I try to pull onto the Elmer's Island access road from Highway 1 in southern Louisiana—some 200 days after the last time I tried it—I am, once again, stopped. Last year, it was cops blocking the road. Now it's private security hired by BP.

"You have to get permission from central command to come on here, and then you'll probably have to be escorted by an official," the security guard tells me.

"How hard is it to get permission?"

"Usually pretty hard." She says a local reporter couldn't get through recently.

McSweeney's Goes to Burma

| Thu Mar. 24, 2011 5:14 PM EDT

It's Burma's turn for an earthquake: This morning, the country was rocked by a 6.8 temblor, in addition to several strong aftershocks. No news yet on the extent of the damage, because it's incredibly difficult to get information out of a country with such insane censorship and nonexistent infrastructure.

Speaking of Burma (and since I really like speaking of Burma anyhow), Voice of Witness, McSweeney's oral-history series, is about to release its newest book, Nowhere to Be Home: Narratives From Survivors of Burma's Military Regime.

My favorite story so far is that of Nge Nge. When she was in her early 20s, the schoolteacher was raped (another subject I can't stop bringing up); her attacker then forced her to marry him. Nobody believed her; when she told her dad, he beat her up and disowned her. Below is an excerpt from Nge Nge's story, though it's worth reading the whole 25-page thing, which has a relatively happy ending. Wait 'til you find out what her rapist husband does, how she finds a way to stick it to another dude, and the hope she discovers in the power of education.

More on New Gulf Drilling Permits

| Wed Mar. 23, 2011 5:07 PM EDT

As reported, the Gulf Coast has recently reopened for new drilling business. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, you can expect more of that in the very near future:

Mr. Bromwich, who heads the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, said more permits to drill for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico's deep water would be issued "within the next week."

Even though:

Bromwich, the top U.S. offshore-drilling regulator, said Tuesday that the speed with which some oil and gas companies are shrugging off last year's deadly Deepwater Horizon disaster as an aberration is disturbing.

And if you like disturbing, check out these pictures of the latest spill, taken by photographer Julie Dermansky this weekend. And read Yahoo's Brett Michael Dykes' article on how little oversight there is of this and future pollution in the Gulf. 

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Oil Is Washing Up in Louisiana—Again

| Tue Mar. 22, 2011 2:54 PM EDT

For the last several days, oil from a 30-mile slick has been washing up in the highly appetizing forms of "emulsified oil, oil mousse, and tar balls" on beaches in southeastern Louisiana including Grand Isle, where I spent last summer covering the BP oil spill. Local officials and the Coast Guard are investigating the source. Meanwhile, yesterday the government approved the first deepwater exploration plan since BP's massive blowout last year. Earlier this month, it also approved the first deepwater drilling permit since the post-Deepwater moratorium. Both permits are for an area where there's already so much oil-production activity that when a 30-mile oil spill appears, no one can tell where it came from.

I'm headed back to Louisiana later this week to report the voices of spill victims a year after the BP disaster. Until then, you can get a feel for the sentiments my Southern friends have been expressing to me lately in a January video of Plaquemines Parish president Billy Nungesser swearing at a Coast Guard official. Even before this new spill started coming ashore, BP's oil was still recently making landfall without adequate protections in place. The famously outspoken Louisiana politician sums it up pretty well when he says, "That is BULLSHIT."

How to Kick Ass: The Video

| Fri Mar. 18, 2011 1:38 PM EDT

I've already written plenty about what it feels like to be assaulted and fight like hell in a full-force self-defense class. I wish I could show you some of the highlights from my third and final day of training. Like when I failed to protect myself against an attacker knocking my legs out from under me: My back hit the ground hard enough to stun me for several seconds and draw gasps from everyone watching. Or the grueling "extended" fights, which I've previously described:

[T]hese fights require you to land five or seven knockout blows. As my instructor describes it, they "are meant to simulate scenarios where the assailant is either on a psychotic break or high, and thus not receptive to a 'pain knockout'—and requiring a 'structural knockout'" (as in, he must be kicked or punched in the head in a way that his brain knocks against the skull hard enough for him to lose consciousness).

Much of these brawls took place on the ground. It's highly unsettling to watch a gal get overtaken on the floor, fight as hard as she can, lose, get pinned again, and then have to say to her assailant, "I'm sorry, I was just scared. I'm sorry I fought you, I'll be good now," so he'll go easier on her and she might find another chance to win. I was given a video of a few of my fights, but watching myself lying still, trying to remember to breathe, looking for a window to kick some dude in the face while he crawls all over me calling me a little bitch kind of makes me want to die, so I'm not ready to put it on the internet.

However! One of my fearless classmates took the next level of the course, which includes simulations of someone coming into your house and attacking you while you're in your own bed. She has bravely offered this video of one such scenario for public consumption. Voilà:

 

Disappearing Journalists

| Wed Mar. 16, 2011 6:59 PM EDT

ABC (among others) reports that four New York Times reporters are MIA on assignment in Libya. Same day, Human Rights Watch releases a reminder that journalists get detained and harshly punished for doing their jobs in their own countries too often.

Here's a handy map of where they're most likely to serve time.  

What Makes a Hate Crime a Hate Crime?

| Wed Mar. 16, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

This is from the AP last Wednesday: 

Authorities are investigating whether an Arkansas man whose body was found dressed in women's clothes was targeted in part because of what he was wearing.

FBI spokesman Steve Frazier said Wednesday that federal investigators are looking into the death of 25-year-old Marcal Camero Tye as a civil rights matter. Local authorities say they haven't ruled out a hate crime, but they're also considering other motives.

Authorities believe that a car dragged Tye's body, dressed in women's slacks, a blouse and a bra, for about 100 feet along a highway near Forrest City in eastern Arkansas. It's not clear whether the dragging killed him. Autopsy results weren't immediately available.

This is the update, the next day: 

Local authorities have ruled out a hate crime, but an FBI spokesman says federal investigators are now looking into the death and whether it constitutes a civil rights violation—which could include a hate crime.

That's about where the news stops. Which left me with two questions about this story. For the answer to the first one, let's turn to St. Francis County sheriff Bobby May, whom I called to ask how authorities determined the death wasn't a hate crime (and so quickly).

"We're reasonably sure it's not," May said. He explained (heads up: sort of graphically) that Tye was shot through the head, which killed him, and then got caught underneath the suspect's vehicle when he was trying to get away. The car backed up several times after the body got stuck; authorities think the suspect was trying to get the body out, not trying to drag it. It appears the victim "was picked up for sexual purposes." The FBI, May said, was the one responsible for ruling out the possibility of a hate crime, and the sheriff's department agreed. "It's obvious it wasn't. You know, prostitutes, these types of folks—it's a risk. Whenever you're soliciting, things of this nature happen sometimes."

Was it not possible, I asked, that if Tye was transgendered, then his murder could be both a prostitution deal gone wrong and a hate crime?

"Anything's possible," May said.

The FBI won't comment on whether it made the call that the killing isn't a hate crime. So, here's my other question: Does it matter whether they call it that or not?

Ryken Grattet, a UC Davis sociology professor and hate-crime expert, says the designation might mean prosecutors would seek a slightly greater punishment for the perpetrator. Definitely the designation would determine how the crime was counted in state and federal hate-crime statistics. But most significantly: "It matters a lot for making behavior visible. If it's not a hate crime, it gets much less media coverage. Otherwise it's just another tragic crime."

Somebody killed a trashy hooker? Boring. The bad news about the media is that it doesn't really care when poor, non-white, and/or non-square people get fatally shot and repeatedly backed over with a vehicle in eastern Arkansas. So it's kind of a victory that it does care when someone is murdered because of his race or sexuality. Everyone has heard of the gay activist who was killed in Uganda, home to the much-publicized "kill the gays" bill. You probably haven't heard of this Arkansas case, though, because the news about it ended the second the possibility of it being a hate crime dried up.

Sheriff May and the FBI are obviously well qualified to judge the motives of a murder, but I'll continue to check in with them and follow the details of the case. Because if it is a hate crime, it is important that it be labeled as such. Because there would be articles, vigils, maybe eventually laws. It would be in newspapers and on TV screens, where we'd have to look at it, tangible and horrible evidence that explicit legal discrimination against groups has consequences in places closer than Uganda.