Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Oct. 20 2014 2:03 PM

Unusual News Story Reports Positive Development in Middle East Geopolitics

A rare piece of good news via Reuters on the Middle Eastern diplomacy front:

Iran has taken further action to comply with terms of an extended interim nuclear agreement with six world powers, a monthly U.N. atomic agency update on the accord's implementation showed on Monday.
The report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), seen by Reuters, made clear that Iran is meeting its commitments under the temporary deal, as it and the major powers are seeking to negotiate a final settlement of their nuclear dispute.
It said Iran had diluted more than 4,100 kg of uranium enriched to a fissile purity of up to 2 percent down to the level of natural uranium. This was one of the additional steps Iran agreed to undertake when the six-month accord in July was extended by four months.

Reuters credits the 2013 election of president Hassan Rouhani with improving Iran's relations with other countries. Rouhani wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post soon after his election that outlined a positive vision of Iranian engagement with the rest of the world; the Post then annotated his piece, calling it "another of many gestures of goodwill Rouhani has made toward the United States" and writing that he "clearly sees much of his agenda as hinged on detente with the West."

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Oct. 20 2014 12:13 PM

Video: America’s Year of Police Violence

While the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Missouri have made police treatment of black suspects an issue of national controversy, the increasing ubiquity of smartphones has made police-citizen interactions easier to record. The result, in recent months, has been a seemingly nonstop series of upsetting police-violence videos gone viral. Above, a compilation of recorded incidents of police violence against unarmed suspects—none of whom were armed or engaged in the commission of a violent crime—in the United States in 2014.

Correction, October 20, 2014: The video above originally referred to the St. Louis Sheriff's Department rather than the St. Louis County Sheriff's Department. The video has also been updated to say that John Crawford was carrying an air rifle when he was shot.

Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM

Hong Kong Leader Responds to Protester Demands With a Firm “No”

With pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong entering their fourth week, China-appointed city leader Leung Chun-Ying said today that authorities will not consider allowing open nominations in the 2017 election that will choose his successor. China announced earlier this year it will only allow candidates to be chosen by a (presumably Beijing-influenced) nomination committee, and activists' demand for a more democratic nomination process is one the central issues motivating the recent protests. Leung says an open process would unfairly favor the poor. From the New York Times:

Mr. Leung acknowledged that the protests that have shaken this autonomous Chinese territory for the past three weeks reflected not only broad demands for democracy but also economic grievances, notably the high cost of housing and limited social mobility for the young.
But Mr. Leung, whom the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership has repeatedly endorsed, argued that remedying these grievances should be left to policies like expanding the supply of housing...
“You have to take care of all the sectors in Hong Kong as much as you can,” he said, “and if it’s entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you would be talking to half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than $1,800 a month.”

Leung also said that "challenging the Hong Kong government at these difficult times will do no one any service," but he didn't make any definitive statement about how long demonstrators' occupation of central public areas would be allowed to continue. Protests have become more tense and violent in recent days as police have begun taking down some protester-assembled barricades, and the premeditated beating of one activist was caught on video last week.

This Vox piece puts the issues of candidate nominations and police violence in historical context, writing that both issues are important to Hong Kong residents not only in and of themselves, but also as tests of Chinese authorities' willingness to crack down in a traditionally independent city where the Tiananmen Square massacres are still well-remembered.

Correction, Oct. 20, 2014: This post originally misspelled Tiananmen Square.

Oct. 20 2014 10:41 AM

Turkey Reverses Course, Will Let Kurds Cross Border to Fight ISIS

Turkey will allow Kurdish peshmerga fighters to cross its border into Syria to fight ISIS's attack on the city of Kobani, the country's foreign minister announced today. It's a change of course on an issue that had led to rioting and deaths in Turkey, whose Kurdish population has long been at odds with the central government. From the New York Times:

At a news conference in Ankara, the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said that his government was “helping the pesh merga cross over to Kobani,” an apparent shift from Turkey’s previous refusal to allow any military assistance to Kurdish fighters in the town.
The announcement, along with an American decision to use military aircraft to drop ammunition and small arms to resupply Kurdish fighters to Kobani, reflected escalating international pressure to push back Islamic State militants who have been attacking the Kurdish town for more than a month.

The United States had pushed Turkey to allow Kurds into Kobani, but until today's announcement the country had said it wouldn't join the international anti-ISIS coalition unless action was also taken against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. But no coalition attacks against Assad have been reported, and it's not clear what other inducements might have been offered to Turkey to persuade the country's leaders to change course.

Oct. 19 2014 2:58 PM

Racist Rancher Cliven Bundy Challenges Eric Holder in Bizarre Campaign Ad

In what will hopefully be the strangest ad of the 2014 midterm campaign, Cliven Bundy makes a comeback. Remember Bundy? He is that rancher in Nevada who got a bunch of libertarians and Tea Party activists to support his strange cause in which he insisted that his cows should be able to graze for free on federal land. Lots of people abandoned him though when he started to spew racist drivel and even suggested that African Americans were better off as slaves. But now it seems he still has at least one supporter who is eager for his endorsement.

Bundy stars in an ad to support third party candidate Kamau Bakari, who is black. The video begins with a clip of Attorney General Eric Holder’s famous “nation of cowards” speech. Then we see Bundy and Bakari dressed in over-the-top cowboy gear in front of a horse. “Did he just call me a coward?” Bundy asks. ”No he called all white folks cowards,” Bakari replies. Then they start discussing political correctness and the whole thing keeps getting worse the second before they “dare” Holder to go to Nevada to talk about race.

“Cliven, you know that political correctness—that’s bad for America,” Bakari notes. “That's exactly right,” Bundy replies. “I know that black folks have had a hard time with, uhhhh, slavery.” Bakari then calls Bundy a “brave white man,” adding that he feels “ashamed when I hear black folks whining about ‘white folks this,’ ‘white folks that,’ always begging.” And then Bundy with the kicker: “It’s almost like black folks think white folks owe them something.” The only good thing is that, according to the Washington Post, Bakari—of the Independent American Party—has no chance of unseating Rep. Dina Titus, who is a Democrat.

Oct. 19 2014 2:29 PM

Police Use Tear Gas to Break Up College Pumpkin Festival Turned Violent

Police put on riot gear and used pepper spray and tear gas to break up violent skirmishes that broke out near Keene State College in New Hampshire Saturday night and early Sunday as an annual pumpkin festival suddenly took a turn for the violent. At least 30 people were injured at parties near the school that are thrown every year to coincide with the annual Keene Pumpkin Festival. And people just started throwing “everything they could find—rocks skateboards, buckets, pumpkins,” one witness said. Why? “People just got too drunk.”

And it was fun, apparently. “It's just like a rush. You’re revolting from the cops,” 18-year-old Steven French told the Keene Sentinel. “It’s a blast to do things that you’re not supposed to do.”

These apparently drunk crowds then spread out across the town and for some reason decided to flip over parked cars. Not satisfied with petty vandalism, the crowds began to light fires, according to NECN. One witness told NECN that police even used rubber bullets. “They just started walking on the street, with, like, mace, tear gas and these rubber bullets,” said one witness. At least 14 people were arrested, according to the Associated Press.

Oct. 19 2014 1:20 PM

Texas Lab Worker on Cruise Tests Negative for Ebola as Dallas Hospital Apologizes

Well that was a cruise ruined for nothing. A Dallas hospital lab worker who had voluntarily isolated herself in a cabin during much of a week-long cruise has tested negative for Ebola. The Carnival Magic, the cruise ship that had become a microcosm of the Ebola hysteria that President Obama criticized on Saturday, docked in Texas after a week-long trip in which passengers were not allowed to descend in Belize and Mexico because the lab worker may have come into contact with test samples from an Ebola patient, reports Reuters.

More than 4,000 passengers on the ship had lived a mini week-long Ebola drama that began when they learned through the ship’s public address system that one of the passengers was being monitored for the virus. At one point, a Coast Guard helicopter even landed on the ship to get a blood sample. Some insist, though, that they tried to not let a little Ebola scare ruin their vacation. “We weren't worried,” a woman who was on her honeymoon during the cruise told the Associated Press. “We ended up just hanging out and enjoying the rest of the trip.”

There are soon likely to be dozens more relieved people as the 21 days of monitoring for fever and other symptoms that could signal an Ebola infection will end on Sunday or Monday for 48 people, reports CNN. Around 145 people with “contacts and possible contacts” are being monitored.

On Sunday, the Dallas hospital that has been at the center of the health scare took out a full-page ad apologizing for its mistakes. In an open letter published in the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Texas Health Resources CEO recognizes that “we made mistakes in handling this very difficult challenge.” In the letter, Duncan notes that while the hospital had started activities to train staff on how to handle an Ebola scare, “our training and education programs had not been fully deployed before the virus struck.”

Oct. 18 2014 6:36 PM

Surprise: Catholic Church is Still Homophobic

Roman Catholic bishops voted down what would have been a historic shift in the church’s approach toward gays and the divorced. The draft report that called for greater openness toward these two groups did not get the necessary two-thirds majority at a Catholic Church synod even though the controversial sections had been largely watered down in recent days. The Vatican tried to play down the vote, saying the important fact is that the issue is being discussed in the first place. "It is important not to over-analyze," a Vatican spokesman said. "The fathers of the synod never saw themselves as reaching a final conclusion with this document."

But there was no hiding that the failure to get the votes illustrates “the deep divisions facing the hierarchy as Pope Francis continues his push for a more open church,” notes Josephine Mckenna of Religion News Service.

The document did not obtain a two-thirds majority among the almost 200 bishops who gathered at a Vatican assembly on the family even though the language that many had hailed as groundbreaking had been severely toned down since it was first revealed on Monday. The title of the section on gays, for example, switched from “Welcoming homosexuals” to “Pastoral attention towards persons with homosexual orientations.” While the original version included talk of “accepting and valuing their (homosexuals') sexual orientations” and providing a “a welcoming home” for gays, the final document merely said that discrimination “is to be avoided,” details Reuters. While the initial version talked of how members of same-sex couples could provide “mutual aid” and “precious support” to each other during difficult times, the new version makes it clear “there is no foundation whatsoever” to compare same-sex to opposite-sex unions.

Despite the toned down language on gays, the section that dealt with the issue still failed in a vote of 118 to 62. But the Associated Press says the final number may reflect a number of protest votes by progressive bishops who did not like the watered-down language.

Paragraphs that dealt with whether divorced Catholics could receive communion also failed to pass. During his final address to the Synod, Francis received a long standing ovation after he warned against “hostile rigidity” of “so-called traditionalists” while also criticizing progressives who would “bandage a wound before treating it.”

The BBC’s David Willey points out that while the paragraphs on gays and the divorced failed to get the two-thirds majority needed to be incorporated into the final document, they did get more than 50 percent of the vote. “This allows the necessary leeway for further discussion before the synod reconvenes in Rome in an expanded form in a year's time,” writes Willey.

Oct. 18 2014 3:03 PM

Obama Urges Against Ebola “Hysteria,” Says Travel Ban Could Make Things Worse

President Obama called for calm on Saturday, pushing back against those who say the government is losing its ability to keep tabs on the outbreak. As the New York Times reports the president is privately seething at what he sees as failures on multiple levels on how authorities have reacted to Ebola, Obama used his weekly address to try to put things in perspective. “This is a serious disease,” Obama said, “but we can't give in to hysteria or fear—because that only makes it harder to get people the accurate information they need.”

Obama also made it clear he has no intention to give in to increasing demands from a few lawmakers to ban travelers from the worst-hit countries. “We can’t just cut ourselves off from West Africa, where this disease is raging,” Obama said. “Trying to seal off an entire region of the world—if that were even possible—could actually make the situation worse.” (For what it’s worth, experts largely agree with the president on this one.) The president also made it clear it is important to keep in mind that only a couple of people have been effected inside the United States: “What we're seeing now is not an ‘outbreak’ or an ‘epidemic’ of Ebola in America.”

As he projects an image of calm though, he is feeling “a deepening frustration, even anger, with how the government has handled key elements of the response,” according to the Times. The president let those feelings show on Wednesday, saying in a meeting that the response was “not tight.” Obama has reportedly put much of the blame on the C.D.C. for its constantly shifting information and failing to adequately train doctors and nurses.

Oct. 18 2014 2:07 PM

Evidence Doesn’t Support Civil Rights Charges Against Michael Brown’s Shooter

The federal investigation into the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri that took place two months ago and sparked a nationwide debate about the militarization of the police is continuing. But so far at least, there doesn’t appear to be enough evidence to file civil rights charges against the shooter, Officer Darren Wilson, who has told investigators he feared for his life while Brown pinned him in his vehicle during a struggle over his gun, reports the New York Times in the first public account of the officer’s testimony. Wilson’s gun was fired twice inside the car, and one of the bullets struck Brown in the arm while the other did not hit anyone.

Wilson’s September testimony contradicts some witnesses, but the forensics tests did show Brown’s blood was on the officer’s gun and on the interior side of the car door. Brown reportedly scratched and punched Wilson repeatedly during the scuffle, according to the officer’s testimony. His version of events could be crucial to the grand jury because Wilson’s “feeling of vulnerability and his sense of heightened alert” could help determine whether the officer was justified in using lethal force.

The testimony, however, fails to explain why Wilson pulled the trigger several times after the two were out of the car. Several witnesses have said the 18-year-old Brown was raising his arms in surrender when he was shot. Brown’s attorney also questions why Wilson would go after Brown if he was allegedly afraid for his life. “His actions contradict the presence of fear,” the attorney tells the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “You’re fearful, a guy’s running, but you’re going to get out and chase him? How many people do you know chase something that you’re fearful of?” Although the attorney does not deny there may have been a scuffle, “no matter what happened in the car, Michael Brown ran away from him.”