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July 1 2015 11:00 AM

Several Southern Black Churches Have Caught Fire. The Latest One Was Once Burned by the KKK.

In the two weeks since the deadly racist shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, at least six black churches in the South have been hit by a string of raging fires. The most recent fire broke out late Tuesday night in Greeleyville, South Carolina, just 65 miles north of Charleston. This is not the first time that the church, Mount Zion AME, has burned—its original structure was set on fire by members of the Ku Klux Klan 20 years ago.

Firefighters spent more than two hours putting out the flames, which destroyed the roof and interior of the building, leaving only a few charred brick walls, CNN reports. Police officials say it is too early to determine the cause of the fire, but the blaze has attracted attention from local police, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, and the FBI. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives is also involved in the ongoing investigation.


The cause of two of the other recent black church fires—one in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the other in Knoxville, Tennessee—has been ruled as arson. However, investigators said there is no evidence that the fires were hate crimes, or that they were connected. Rather, officials say that they appear to be unrelated acts of vandalism. Church fires last week in South Carolina and Georgia are still under investigation.

Whether the blaze in Greeleyville on Tuesday was caused by arson or not, former South Carolina Rep. Bakari Sellers told CNN that the fire serves as “another punch to the gut” to a local community that has already seen tremendous pain. The Charleston shooting on June 17—allegedly instigated by a 21-year-old who publicly announced his desire to start a race war—killed nine people and launched a heated national debate about Confederate symbols. And the 1995* burning of the same church in Greeleyville by the KKK was part of a series of more than two dozen fires that hit black churches at the time. According to a report from the National Fire Protection Association, the number of fires at religious sites was twice as high in 1980 as in 2011.

The NAACP issued a tweet on Tuesday afternoon—before the outbreak of the Greeleyville fire—warning black churches to be careful and hinting that history may be in danger of repeating itself.

*Correction, July 1, 2015: This post originally misstated the year of the 1995 church fire as 1985.

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July 1 2015 9:53 AM

Report: 50 Killed in Attacks on Egyptian Military Checkpoints

At least 50 Egyptian soldiers have been killed in a wave of coordinated attacks on army checkpoints by Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula on Wednesday, the Associated Press reports.

An Islamic State affiliate in Egypt claimed responsibility for Wednesday's attacks, saying its fighters targeted a total of 15 army and police positions and staged three suicide bombings, two of which targeted checkpoints and one that hit an officers' club in the nearby city of el-Arish.
The authenticity of the claim could not be immediately verified but it was posted on a Facebook page associated with the group.
The attacks came just two days after the assassination in Cairo of the country's top prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, and one day after President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi vowed to step up a two-year crackdown on militants.

Egypt's military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Samir, posted a statement on his official Facebook page saying, according to the AP, that “70 militants attacked five checkpoints in northern Sinai and that Egyptian troops killed 22 of them and destroyed three all-terrain vehicles fitted with anti-aircraft guns.”

Samir’s statement put the number of dead at 10, but there have been conflicting reports about that total, with the AP citing security and military officials for the 50 number. The New York Times put the early estimate at 18 killed.

July 1 2015 8:37 AM

Greece’s Prime Minister Signals Willingness to Accept Bailout Terms after Default

Update, July 1, 2015, 8:37 a.m. After effectively defaulting on a debt repayment to the IMF, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras indicated on Tuesday that his country would be willing to accept previously rejected bailout terms with some minor modifications. Tsipras had originally called a referendum for Sunday on the terms. But following the default, he sent a letter to the nation’s creditors, the New York Times reports, saying Greece would be open to a deal:

In the letter, Mr. Tsipras said he was prepared to accept the European Commission’s proposal of June 28, with five amendments on issues that had been particular sticking points.
He continued to ask for a lower value-added tax on Greek islands, for instance, to help bolster tourism and compensate for the high price of delivering goods to such areas. And he still objected to a system of automatically adjusting pension payments according to the financial strength of the underlying pension funds rather than relying on government assistance to maintain the payments.
But he accepted the bulk of what the Europeans had asked for in their last proposal, including creating strong disincentives to early retirement.

The offer has the potential to resolve the spiraling financial crisis that had seemed to put the country at risk of being forced out of the Eurozone.

Original Post, June 30, 2015, 11:54 p.m. At 1 a.m. Wednesday morning in Athens, Greece failed to make a $1.7 billion loan payment and officially defaulted on its loan from the International Monetary Fund. The IMF, which doesn’t technically use the word default, instead declared Greece in arrears. That is of course not good news for Greece, but, the Wall Street Journal notes, the nonpayment won’t cause much immediate pain for the Greek economy.

The painful process of whatever-this-all-turns-out-to-be is not yet over. Once the country fails to make a payment to a private creditor, like the two billion euros worth of Treasury bills that are coming due on July 10, Greece will officially be in default in every language. That means there is still more to lose and, therefore, more negotiating to be done.

But Tuesday still was not a good day in Greece. How not good?

“Greece slipped deeper into its financial abyss …”
“Greece on Tuesday added its name to a roster that includes some of the world’s poorest and worst governed nations, including Iraq, Sudan, Somalia and Zimbabwe.”

European stocks dipped, as did the euro against the U.S. dollar, but the declines were smaller than earlier this week when the government shutdown the banking system and called a referendum. Greek banks will remain closed until Monday.

The Greeks are set to go to the polls on July 5th to vote on a referendum on whether to accept the creditors' repayment terms. While simultaneously negotiating a new, restructured bailout to keep Greece afloat, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ call for a referendum has ratcheted up pressure on everyone involved. European leaders have urged him to cancel the vote. German Chancellor Angela Merkel countered by saying no negotiations will take place until the Greeks have gone to the polls to decide on whether to accept the creditors' offer, which would require pension cuts and a sales tax hike.

“Late Tuesday, Greek officials were also raising doubts over their plans for a referendum planned for Sunday, in which the government had asked its citizens to vote against pension cuts and sales-tax increases demanded by its creditors,” the Journal reports. “Some officials suggested that Mr. Tsipras and his ministers could campaign for a “yes” if a better offer from the rest of the eurozone and the IMF was on the table, while others indicated that the vote might even be called off altogether.”

July 1 2015 8:20 AM

Oregon Marijuana Enthusiasts Hold Weed-and-Seed Giveaway as Legalization Takes Effect

Oregon lawmakers passed several bills on Tuesday allowing retail sales regulated by the Liquor Control Commission to start in late 2016 as the state prepared for its entry into the world of legal marijuana, the Oregonian reports. Legalization took effect Wednesday, and pot enthusiasts weren't waiting until the stores opened to celebrate: A large crowd got together early Wednesday morning near a landmark sign in Portland to share their stashes.

From CBS affiliate KOIN: 

On July 1, Oregon joined Colorado, Washington, Washington D.C. and Alaska in legalizing recreational marijuana. Those over the age of 21 can now legally carry one ounce of pot, and can possess up to 8 ounces and 4 plants at home.
Pot advocates gathered at the Burnside Bridge early Wednesday morning to hand out weed and marijuana seeds in celebration of the new law. However, lighting up in public is still unlawful, and police said they expected many to hit the streets once the clock struck midnight.
"We anticipate there are going to be a lot of people that will immediately go out and start smoking, maybe in public areas," Portland Police Sgt. Pete Simpson told KOIN 6 News. "We really encourage people to use at private locations, in their homes, and be respectful of the fact that there are a lot of people who don't want to smell it."

With no structure yet in place for retailers who want to serve Oregon's non-prescription market, legislators are turning to dispensaries that provide medical marijuana, which has been legal in Oregon since 1998. A bill that passed the state Senate 23-6 on Tuesday would allow dispensaries to sell to customers without a prescription starting this October to fill the gap.

State Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, a Republican, supported the bill as a proactive step to begin tamping down illegal drug sales while waiting for state agencies to set up a system for licensing and taxing retailers. "Sometimes it is difficult for the bureaucracy to keep up with democracy," Ferrioli said, according to the Oregonian.

Marijuana sales in Oregon will be heavily taxed and are expected to bring in $18 million for the state's 2015-17 budget, which covers the first year the taxes will be in effect. Forty percent of the money is headed for the state's Common School Fund.

The giveaway Wednesday morning was similar to events held this spring in Washington, D.C., where marijuana possession is legal but congressional objections have so far prevented the district from enacting laws to allow retail sales. In Oregon, for the time being, local activist Rus Belville told ABC affiliate KATU, they will "take advantage of Oregon generosity" and "free the weed" by giving it away.

June 30 2015 9:13 PM

U.S. and Cuba to Re-Establish Diplomatic Ties, Reopen Embassies After 50 Years

The gradual warming of relations between the U.S. and Cuba continued on Tuesday with the news that the two will formally restore diplomatic relations and reopen embassies. The final agreement is expected to be announced on Wednesday and the U.S. embassy is Havana should be up and running in July.

U.S. diplomatic ties with Cuba were severed in 1961 following Castro’s ascent to power during the Cuban revolution. Beginning in the late 1970s, however, each country has operated a diplomatic office in each other’s country, but called them “interests sections,” rather than embassies. These missions, the Associated Press notes, are technically under the protection of Switzerland. The New York Times did a bit of sleuthing around Cuba’s “interests section” in Washington, D.C. and found signs that diplomacy was in the air. “In recent weeks, Cuba… repaved the driveway, repainted the fence and erected a large flagpole on the front lawn to await the formal raising of its flag,” according to the Times.


The chilly relationship between the two countries has persisted for decades, well beyond any true geopolitical importance that the standoff gained during the Cold War. President Obama aimed to change the tone and trajectory of the relationship when elected to office and late last year announced the beginning of substantive reforms—including building economic ties and easing travel restrictions.

The diplomatic normalization is the latest move by the Obama administration looking to keep the process’ momentum going. Momentum will be important politically to make changes that Obama cannot make by himself. The administration can make diplomatic deals, like this one and removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, but Congress is the only body that can technically lift the embargo.

June 30 2015 5:36 PM

Escaped Convicts Update: Escaped Convicts Possibly Drank Something Called "Grape Gin"

The investigation into Richard Matt and David Sweat's escape from New York's Clinton Correctional Facility continues, aided in part by information provided by Sweat after his Sunday capture. Among the notable details from roundup stories in the New York Times, CNN, and the AP:

  • A resident near the Clinton prison reported two men running through his yard shortly after midnight on June 6, the day Matt and Sweat went missing. Officers didn't arrive at his house until 9 a.m. and didn't bring scent-sniffing dogs to the scene until 3 p.m.
  • The FBI is investigating Clinton Correctional employees' potential involvement in a broader scheme of intra-prison drug trafficking. Twelve employees, including the prison's superintendent (referred to as its warden in some reports), have been put on leave.
  • Sweat says he split from Matt five days before Sweat was caught because Matt was slowing him down; Matt may have had severe blisters and food poisoning.
  • Area district attorney Andrew Wylie says Matt and Sweat began sawing through the steel walls of their cells in January and, contrary to previous reports, did not use power tools to do so.
  • Sweat made a "dry run" the night before the actual escape—during which he went as far as emerging from the manhole outside the prison that he would eventually use to actually leave the grounds—before returning to his cell.
  • The owner of a hunting cabin that the pair seem to have broken into found that his bottle of "grape gin" had been opened and left out of place. Matt smelled like alcohol when he was killed Friday.
  • "Grape gin" sounds gross.

Sweat's medical condition has been upgraded from critical to fair.

June 30 2015 4:12 PM

Alaska’s Current Off-the-Charts Wildfire Situation, in One Map

Alaskans can take a peek out the window this week to catch a glimpse of climate change. It seems the entire state is on fire, and those fires are burning up land at a pace far beyond that of 2004, the previous record-setting year.

Here are the stats:

  • Wildfires in Alaska have burned more than 1.25 million acres so far this year. That’s an area 32 times the size of Washington, D.C.
  • 3,343 firefighters are currently working in Alaska. That’s one-third of all the wildland firefighters currently tasked in the United States.
  • 85 percent of the area burned nationwide this year by wildfire has been in Alaska.

The state of Alaska is at its highest level of alert. Its Tuesday wildfire situation report was 65 pages long. And the problem is getting worse: Wildfires now burn five times more acreage each year in our northernmost state than they did in 1943.

Since the state is so huge, firefighters are often spread few and far between—and fires that aren’t immediately threatening human habitation are often left to burn. But some of the state’s most densely populated areas, like Fairbanks, are seeing an especially pronounced fire boom. Several factors are at play: For instance, there is more fuel (trees, grass, etc.) to burn, thanks to fire-suppression policies, and human-sparked blazes are on the rise. And, of course, it’s all compounded by the climate trend toward hotter and drier weather.

Last year was Alaska’s warmest on record, and last month was its warmest May by far—more than 7 degrees Fahrenheit above the long-term average. Alaska now sticks out like a bright red sore spot on world temperature maps. That remarkable warmth has set the stage for a remarkably disastrous fire season, melting off this year’s meager snowpack and turning vast tracts of forest into kindling.

Global warming has helped spark big wildfires in Alaska.

Climate Central

A new report by Climate Central shows that Alaska’s fire season has lengthened by 35 days since 1950. That’s increased the chances for huge fire seasons like this year’s—in which fires are increasingly burning through the permafrost itself. That means Alaska is on the verge of tipping from a net sink of greenhouse gases to a net source, setting off a spiral: Global warming begets more fire begets more global warming. As I reported in a lengthy dive on Alaska’s rapidly changing climate earlier this year, a cruel irony is that since Alaska’s wildfire-fighting service is funded by the state’s significant oil reserves, a dip in oil prices this year means the state is attacking this record-setting fire season with fewer resources.

And it’s not just Alaska. If you broaden the view to all of North America, vast stretches of northern Canada are also on fire at the moment—including the area around the Alberta tar sands oil fields. A huge plume of smoke has stretched as far south as Arkansas, reddening sunsets and producing eerie views of the moon across the Midwest in recent days.

Even north of the Arctic Circle, large wildfires are becoming more common—even burning through tundra and permafrost.

Climate Central

Data from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre shows nearly 3 million acres have burned so far this year in Canada—also far above long-term averages—with the Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba at the highest level of alert.

June 30 2015 3:38 PM

Iranians and Americans Both Support a Nuclear Deal, Just Not the Same Deal

With the deadline for a deal over Iran’s nuclear program getting extended until July 7 today, a new poll shows that the Iranian public is broadly supportive of a deal, but also highlights just how difficult it may be to overcome the sticking points that remain. The poll, conducted jointly by the University of Maryland, University of Tehran Center for Public Opinion Research, and the Toronto-based, surveyed more than 1,000 Iranians in May and found that 57.4 percent of Iranians support a deal including restrictions on uranium enrichment and international inspections in return for sanctions relief, with 14.7 percent opposed. That puts them essentially in agreement with Americans, 59 percent of whom support a deal in principle.

However, a plurality of Iranians (37.5 percent) also believe, as their government has maintained since a framework agreement was struck in April, that the P5+1 has agreed to lift sanctions on Iran immediately. More than 62 percent believe that all U.S. sanctions on Iran will eventually be lifted. The Obama administration has maintained that sanctions will be lifted gradually as Iran complies with the terms of agreement and that non–nuclear-related sanctions, such as those related to the Iranian government’s human rights practices and support for terrorism, will remain in place. The pace of sanctions relief has been the main remaining obstacle to a deal since April, and at that time it looked like the negotiators were simply punting the issue down the road. But over time, the positions of both sides on the issue have hardened to the point that publics in the two countries have very different ideas of what the final agreement will entail. Consequently, it’s hard to see how the negotiators will reach an accord that will allow them both to maintain credibility.


There’s good news in the survey for President Hassan Rouhani ahead of legislative elections next year, with voters mostly giving him positive marks. Twenty-four percent of voters also say they’d like to see him re-elected in 2017 over a long list of potential rivals, with former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad coming in a distant second with 8.8 percent. A large majority of Iranians support continued nuclear research but oppose nuclear weapons, saying that their country’s program is necessary for medical research and economic development.

The survey shows that while a small majority of Iranians have a positive few of the American people, they overwhelmingly (73.4 percent) have a very unfavorable view of the U.S. government. They also believe that U.S. leaders don’t actually think Iran has nuclear weapons and is imposing sanctions as a way to limit Iran’s growing political power, and are divided on whether the U.S. would actually comply with the terms of the deal if it were reached.

While Rouhani has staked a good deal of his political capital on reaching a deal, nearly 75 percent of voters say they would mostly or completely blame the P5+1 rather than Iran if negotiations fell apart. This could be another bad sign for the talks: Rather than try to sell the public on a deal that looks very different from what they’ve been describing for the last few months, Rouhani and his negotiating team may conclude it’s politically more advantageous to pull out of the negotiations and blame the American for their failure, contributing one more to the litany of sources of mistrust between the two countries.   

June 30 2015 3:22 PM

One Quote From a Current President That Totally Captures the Crazy Hold Sports Have on Our Minds

President Obama had a good week last week. Was it his best week ever?

Obama didn't play college basketball, which means that what we have here is someone saying that the week in which he scored an impressive but by no means unprecedented number of points in a high school or recreational basketball game was more memorable than the weeks in which he was elected president of the United States.


And you know what? I could see myself and many of the people I know thinking the same way. Sports are a hell of a drug.

June 30 2015 12:56 PM

Business as Usual in Bahrain

The U.S. State Department today announced that it is lifting restrictions on military aid to Bahrain, which were put in place after the government crackdown on protests during the 2011 Arab Spring. The U.S. will once again provide anti-tank missiles and Humvees, and the Bahraini government will now be able to request additional arms. It was probably only a matter of time. Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and supports the U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS in Syria, which included the Royal Bahrain Air Force’s first-ever combat missions.

But the move comes despite continuing criticism of the Gulf kingdom’s human rights practices, particularly its crackdown on Shiite political activists following the 2011 protests, which were put down with the help of Saudi troops, with dozens killed and hundreds injured. The State Department’s own country reports on human rights, released last Friday, faulted Bahrain for practices including the “arrest and detention of protesters (some of whom were violent) on vague charges, occasionally leading to their torture and mistreatment in detention; and lack of due process in trials of political and human rights activists, students, and journalists, including harsh sentences.” The report also noted that the high-ranking officials involved in the violence against protesters have mostly gone unpunished and that “discrimination continued against the Shia population, as did discrimination based on gender, religion, and nationality.”


Tensions reached a high point last summer when Bahrain expelled U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski after he met with members of a Shia opposition group. Malinowski returned to the country last December. 

The Obama administration has been gradually backing away from the restrictions placed on assistance to autocratic Arab regimes, whose support is seen as vital in the ongoing campaign against ISIS and other extremist groups. The administration resumed assistance to Egypt—the world’s second-biggest recipient of U.S. military aid, after Israel—in March, having suspended it following the coup that overthrew democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. That decision was made despite little evidence that human rights conditions have improved in Egypt. An Amnesty International report released Tuesday charges Egypt with imprisoning a “generation of young activists” in a crackdown on dissent that has seen more than 41,000 arrests and hundreds of death sentences, including for Morsi himself.