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Seattle Moves to Dismantle Police Free Protest Zone After Shootings

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  • After two shootings over the weekend in the Capitol Hill Organized/Occupied Protest (CHOP), Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said the city would begin reclaiming and sending police back to the six-block area that has been occupied since June 8.
  • CHOP was first established after police abandoned a precinct in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, making way for protesters to take over the area.
  • Since then, organizers have set up a free food coop, a community garden, and medic stations, among other resources, in the area which has remained almost entirely police-free.
  • While the protests have largely been peaceful, violence has escalated in recent days, prompting Durkan to call for the area to be dismantled because it’s creating difficult circumstances for local businesses and residents.

Shootings in CHOP

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced Monday that the city would begin the process of reclaiming the Capitol Hill Organized/Occupied Protest (CHOP) zone and sending police back in after two shootings took place in the area over the weekend.

CHOP, also known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), is a 24/7 protest that has occupied roughly six blocks around a currently abandoned police precinct in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle since June 8.

The first shooting was on Saturday morning and resulted in the death and killing of Horace Lorenzo Anderson, a 19-year-old Black man who had just graduated high school, according to the Seattle Times

Anderson was transported to a hospital before being pronounced dead. Another 33-year-old man was also shot and taken to a nearby hospital.

According to reports, the victims were cared for by medics in the camp, but fire department medics did not come. Fire Department officials said they were following procedure which required them to wait for the police to secure the area first. Seattle Police Department (SPD) officials said officers tried to go into the zone, they were blocked by protesters who said the victim had already been moved.

The second incident took place on Sunday when a 17-year-old boy was shot in CHOP. He was treated at a nearby hospital and released, according to a hospital spokesperson. No suspects have been identified in either shooting.

Durkan addressed the shootings in a press conference on Monday. In it, she said that the city had started community-led efforts to have protesters leave voluntarily, as well as efforts to move folks experiencing homeless to services as needed.

“The cumulative impacts of the gatherings and protests and the nighttime atmosphere and violence has lead to increasingly difficult circumstances for our businesses and residents,” she said. 

“It’s time for people to go home. It is time for us to restore Cal Anderson [Park] and Capitol Hill so it can be a vibrant part of the community,” she continued. “We can still accommodate people who want to protest peacefully, come there and gather. But the impacts on the businesses and residents and community are now too much.”

While Durkan did not specify exactly how or when this would happen, she did say the city was working with community leaders and Black-led organizations. Durkan also did not confirm when police would return to the precinct, but said officers will do so “peacefully and in the near future.” 

Despite the uncertainty, it is likely that city and police officials will want to move quickly. On Tuesday morning, SPD reported that they responded to a third shooting near CHOP— though not in CHOP— and that one man was injured.

During Monday’s press conference, Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best also claimed that, in addition to the shootings, there have been reports of rape, assault, burglary, arson, and property destruction in or around the area.

CHOP Background

Despite these recent incidents, the events inside CHOP have been largely peaceful by most accounts, contrary to right-wing narratives dominating the discussion.

CHOP first came to be after nine days of massive protests rocked Seattle following the killing of George Floyd. Much protesting had been happening in Capitol Hill, and specifically near the SPD’s East Precinct, where police set up barricades and repeatedly clashed with protesters using tear gas, flashbangs, and pepper spray.

SPD has claimed that their use of force was a response to protesters throwing bottles, rocks, and other projectiles at them, but numerous protesters and local politicians have said that the use of force was not proportionate. The Office of Police Accountability is now investigating over 12,000 complaints about police actions during the protests.

Then, on June 8, Chief Best announced that barricades would be removed from the precinct and that the department’s footprint in the area would be reduced. Police boarded up the building and left, basically leaving the protesters to demonstrate freely.

The protesters, with the help of city officials, set up barricades, blocking off traffic from the area, and declared it an autonomous zone free from police. They placed signs on some of the barriers that said “You Are Entering Free Capitol Hill,” and “You are now leaving the USA.”

Very quickly, CHOP grew to become a community. Organizers have pitched tents and established a free food co-op, started a community garden, and set up medical stations— which are often utilized to serve homeless people and sex workers.

The area is covered in art, and there is a candlelit memorial for George Floyd and other Black people killed by police. Organizers also set up a speaker stage where discussions and teach-ins are held, as well as an outdoor projector system where occupants have screened movies. 

But CHOP also has round-the-clock security patrols, and according to some reports, some of the volunteer security guards openly carry guns despite a firearms ban within Capitol Hill imposed by Mayor Durkan.

The movement is largely leaderless, and the occupants make decisions by holding group votes. They have issued a series of demands that are quite expansive, but the main ones are centered around defunding the police and reinvesting in the community.

The demonstrators see CHOP as an example and a prototype of a police-free neighborhood, and for the most part, there has largely been almost no police presence in the area since the precinct was abandoned.

Although last week, Police Chief Best pushed back on that idea and noted that officers will go into the zone if there are threats to public safety.

“There is no cop-free zone in the city of Seattle,” she said. “I think that the picture has been painted in many areas that shows the city is under siege. That is not the case.”

Relationship With City

However, until now, the people of CHOP have largely worked and gotten along with city officials. In general, there has been peaceful dialogue and give and take from both parties.

Last week, city workers removed the makeshift barriers and replaced them with concrete blocks to open access for local traffic, sanitation trucks, and emergency workers. The move angered activists, who said it was shrinking their protest space and endangering the lives of people by creating what one demonstrator called “a drive-by shooting lane.”

Black activists in the zone agreed to honor the road during the day, but not overnight when the site was more vulnerable.

The city, for its part, has largely respected the zone and even provided them with resources. The Department of Transportation has given them portable toilets, and the Fire Department has worked as intermediaries between them and the police.

Mayor Jenny Durkan even seemed to defend CHOP after President Donald Trump attacked both it and her in a now-deleted tweet.

“Radical Left Governor @JayInslee and the Mayor of Seattle are being taunted and played at a level that our great Country has never seen before,” Trump wrote. “Take back your city NOW. If you don’t do it, I will. This is not a game. These ugly Anarchists must be stooped IMMEDIATELY. MOVE FAST!” 

Durkan hit back, tweeting, “Make us all safe. Go back to your bunker. #BlackLivesMatter”

During an interview with CNN last week, Durkan also pushed back on claims that CHOP was violent.

“We have four blocks in Seattle that is more like a block party atmosphere. It’s not an armed takeover. It’s not a military junta. We will make sure that we will restore this but we have block parties and the like in this part of Seattle all the time,” she said.“There is no threat right now to the public.” 

Protesters have criticized the narrative that CHOP is just a block party or a festival, arguing that it undermines the fact that it is a serious movement.

Currently, it remains unclear how the relationship between the protesters and government officials will change. 

While there has not yet been a unified response from CHOP, some members did write an open letter proposing changes including setting up a safe use area, creating signs encouraging intoxicated people to stay away from the protest zone, and imposing a curfew at night.

But numerous demonstrators have also said they will not leave until their demands are met.

According to NPR, last week, activists said it is too early to give up the space, writing, “only a few demands have been met — a ban on police chokeholds, for example — and talks are still going on for the bigger asks, namely slashing the Seattle Police Department’s budget and redirecting funds to health and social services,” 

See what others are saying: (Seattle PI) (The New York Times) (ABC News)

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As Unemployment Claims Rise, CA Officials Report Inmates Collected Millions in Benefits

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  • Unemployment numbers spiked for the second week in a row, marking the highest amount of new claims made since early October with 778,000 people filing. Over 20 million Americans are still collecting some kind of joblessness aid.
  • Experts say this will only get worse as COVID cases continue to rise and states impose more restrictions. However, unlike during the spring shutdowns, struggling Americans and small businesses will likely not have any help from the federal government.
  • Meanwhile, law enforcement officials in California reported that tens of thousands of inmates received upwards of $1 billion in unemployment benefits as part of a scam that officials described as “the most significant fraud on taxpayer funds in California history.”

Unemployment Numbers Spike

Another 778,000 Americans filed for unemployment this week, the Department of Labor reported Wednesday, marking the highest spike since early October and the second week in a row that new claims have risen.

According to experts, this data signals that the massive coronavirus spikes the U.S. has seen in recent weeks are slowing the economy once again. On Wednesday, the country reported a record 2 million new cases in the same two weeks that joblessness claims also went up, bringing the official case count to more than 12.6 million Americans infected and over 260,000 dead.

As the COVID-19 spikes continue, and with more state and local governments imposing new restrictions on public gatherings, limiting hours and operations for restaurants and bars, and temporarily closing down some businesses entirely, economists say this situation will get worse before it gets better.

Unlike the first wave of shutdowns this past spring, it seems almost certain that struggling Americans will have to weather these latest closures without any help from the government.

Already, many of the programs that gave trillions of dollars to unemployed Americans and small businesses under the CARES Act have expired, and most of the few remaining programs will run out soon.

That is especially concerning when it comes to unemployment benefits. According to a recent report from the progressive think tank The Century Foundation, unless Congress and the White House sign off on a deal to extend key programs, roughly 12 million Americans will lose these benefits entirely the day after Christmas.

But after months of deadlock, any hopes for a new stimulus package petered out when the election came around. Democratic leadership is reportedly attempting to restart those talks, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he wants to approve some kind of bill before the end of the year. 

However, it remains unclear how all the problems that had deadlocked the lawmakers for months during the earlier negotiations will be resolved in time.

Inmate Unemployment Fraud

Meanwhile, states are still continuing to struggle with distributing unemployment benefits to jobless Americans.

On Tuesday, a task force lead by nine district attorneys across the state of California reported in a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) that tens of thousands of prison and jail inmates — including more than 100 people on death row — have collected hundreds of millions of dollars in unemployment benefits as part of a scam that the officials say “appears to be the most significant fraud on taxpayer funds in California history,”

According to the task force, between March and August, inmates housed in every single California prison and in jails throughout the state filed 35,000 claims totaling at least $140 million in benefits, though the alleged crimes could total as much as $1 billion.

In most cases, officials said that the payments were given out in the form of prepaid debit cards sent to friends or family on the outside who would then later deposit the proceeds to inmate accounts.

In some cases, the joblessness benefits were sent directly to the jails and prisons. Sometimes the inmates used their real names, but other times, they used fake names and fake Social Security numbers.

In fact, prosecutors were tipped off to some of the cases by listening to inmates recorded phone calls, where they bragged about how easy it was the game the system.

As far as how such widespread fraud could happen, law enforcement officials blamed California’s Employment Development Department, which has been swamped with processing more than 16.4 million unemployment claims since March, resulting in a massive backlog of unfilled claims that, according to reports, has totaled upwards of more than 1.6 million people at times.

However, the task force also said that part of the problem was due to the fact that unlike at least 35 other states, California does not have the technology to crosscheck inmate rosters against unemployment claims.

Looking Forward

In their letter, the officials called on Newsom to crack down on the rampant fraud and provide “significant resources” to do so. 

Newsom, for his part, responded in a statement by calling the fraud “absolutely unacceptable,” and ordering the Office of Emergency Services to create a task force to help the prosecutors with their investigation.

However, as The New York Times pointed out, Newsom had already formed a “strike team” a few months ago to help the state’s employment department speed up claims and address other issues, including fraud at correctional facilities.

The district attorneys were still forced to form their own task force with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation after the reports of fraud in the employment department continued and the “strike team” failed to uncover the large amounts of fraud the other groups had seen.

Currently, it is unclear how Newsom’s new task force is different from the largely unsuccessful “strike team.” 

California, of course, is not the only state having these issues with unemployment insurance fraud. There have also been similar reports of fraud in Massachusetts, Illinois, Kansas, and other states.

These problems also go beyond unemployment. There have been frequent reports of CARES Act funding being misused, including by people using small business loans to buy luxury cars, as well as large companies or businesses connected to President Donald Trump Trump and members of Congress improperly receiving funding.

As Congress considers another much-needed stimulus package, these issues of transparency and accountability have now become paramount. 

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NBC News) (USA Today

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COVID-19 Cases Expected To Surge After Thanksgiving

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  • With coronavirus cases already on a steep rise in the U.S, experts are warning that Thanksgiving travel and gatherings will likely make things worse. Canada, for example, saw a jump in cases after its citizens celebrated the holiday last month.
  • Surgeon General Jerome Adams said that Americans should hold out for a vaccine, which is on the horizon, and be safe this Thanksgiving.
  • A family in Texas is also waring against gathering, saying they learned how dangerous it is the hard way. After celebrating a birthday together, all 15 people who attended the party tested positive for the virus.
  • On top of this experts are also warning against thinking a negative test clears you for socialization. In reality, you can test negative for the virus and still have and transmit it.

Warning From Surgeon General 

As Thanksgiving looms closer, warnings against family gatherings are being echoed by experts and everyday people alike. 

Health officials have been vocal about the threat the Thanksgiving holiday poses when it comes to the coronavirus. The U.S. has seen 12.4 million cases and lost 257,000 lives to the virus, and cases have been on a steep increase this month. The CDC has already warned against travel and experts have said that based on the spike Canada saw after its October Thanksgiving, America is set to go down a similar, or even worse path. 

“I want the American people to know that we are at a dire point in our fight with this virus by any measure,”  U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said Monday on Good Morning America.Cases, positivity, hospitalizations, deaths. We’re seeing more Americans negatively impacted than ever before.” 

Adams said that with a vaccine on the horizon, Americans should just wait out this homestretch and stay put for the holiday.

“I’m asking Americans, begging you, hold on just a little bit longer,” he said. “Keep Thanksgiving and the celebration small and smart this year.” 

Family in Texas Urges Caution

Health officials are not the only ones preaching this advice. In Arlington, Texas, a family that has lived the consequences of gathering without regard for public health is urging people to not make the same mistake as them. The Aragonez family celebrated a birthday earlier this month indoors without masks or distancing. Now, all 15 people who attended tested positive for the virus. 

“We feel guilty for gathering,” members of the family said in a video encouraging caution. “All this pain that my family is feeling, this loneliness, this sickness, this longing to be healthy could have been prevented.” 

“Please don’t be like my family and ignore the CDC guidelines,” one person said. “By staying apart we can fight this virus together.” 

While most cases in the family were mild, one person was hospitalized for over a week.

“One moment of carelessness has cost us a month of peace, has cost us sleep, has cost us laughs, has cost us a lot of money,” one family member told the Washington Post. 

Testing Negative is Not Enough

Many have still forged on with their gathering plans under the false idea that if everyone tests negative before attending, they are in the clear to socialize. However, experts warn this is far from the case.

Just because a person tests negative does not necessarily mean they do not have the virus. Tests are not 100% accurate and it can take days or even a week to test positive for the virus after exposure. Not to mention, people could come into contract with the virus between their test and the family event. 

“A negative result is a snapshot in time,”  Dr. Paige Larkin, a clinical microbiologist at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Chicago explaining to the New York Times. “It’s telling you that, at that exact second you are tested, the virus was not detected. It does not mean you’re not infected.”

While it might slightly minimize the risk of spread, it certainly does not eliminate it. More than anything, it gives people a false sense of security that they have a free pass to go wherever and see whoever they want, despite the fact that it still poses a large health threat.

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (Washington Post) (Associated Press)

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Over 1 Million People Traveled Through U.S. Airports Friday, Despite COVID-19 Warnings

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  • Over 1 million people traveled through U.S. airports on Friday, marking the second-highest single day of airport traffic since the coronavirus pandemic began.
  • The new record comes despite the fact that the CDC has issued a warning against travel for Thanksgiving, encouraging people to stay home instead because COVID-19 cases are already on a steep rise.
  • In Canada, cases spiked after the country celebrated their Thanksgiving holiday in October.
  • While cases were already increasing in the country, contact tracing has linked outbreaks to holiday gatherings, which likely accelerated the speed of spread.

Cases and Travel Both Increase

The upcoming Thanksgiving holiday is expected to worsen the already increasing coronavirus outbreak in the United States. 

Currently, the country has seen over 12.3 million cases and lost more than 256,000 lives to this virus. On Friday, the U.S. broke its record for new cases in a single day, reporting 198,500 cases. The daily average has reached 171,462 cases a day and roughly one-quarter of all cases in the U.S. have come from just the month of November. 

These circumstances paint a grim picture of what could come after all of the traveling and large gatherings that are expected to happen over the holiday, even after repeated warning against doing so.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned against traveling and advised that “postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others this year.”

The CDC told travelers to ask themselves questions, like if cases are high in their home or destination, if their method of travel makes social distancing difficult, and if there are travel restrictions in their area. If the answers to any of those questions are yes, people should “consider making other plans, such as hosting a virtual gathering or delaying your travel.”

Despite these warnings, air travel is on the rise in the country. On Friday, more than 1 million people passed through airports, marking the second-busiest day of air travel since the pandemic began. While this is 1.5 million people less than the same day last year, the travel surge troubles health officials who fear the virus could spread as people gather with their families. 

Case Spike After Canada’s Thanksgiving

All the U.S. has to do is look to its neighbor to the North in order to find out just what kind of impact Thanksgiving can have on coronavirus cases. Two weeks after Canada’s Thanksgiving in October, the country saw a spike in cases. While cases were already on the rise at the time, experts believe that holiday gatherings contributed to and accelerated the spread.

“Cases were indeed increasing already, but we definitely saw an increase in the rate of transmission after Thanksgiving. And we know that Thanksgiving is important for a couple of reasons. One is through contact tracing data,” Dr. Laura Rosella, an associate professor and epidemiologist at the University of Toronto told CBS News.

Contact tracing in the country showed a significant transmission from household gatherings stemming from Thanksgiving. 

“One local health unit that reported about 12 people being infected because of a Thanksgiving gathering,” Rosella explained. 

It’s not the only reason the cases are increasing, it’s not the only setting in which transmission is occurring, but definitely when people gathered indoors it did transmit COVID.”

Superspreading Events

Still, people are more likely to feel safe with their family, no matter how high the COVID-19 risk actually is. Superspreading weddings are among the strongest examples of this, as numerous have led to significant outbreaks because couples thought it was safe to gather with friends, family, and other people they trust.

“Many people don’t believe that you can actually catch it from your family and friends. They feel safe when they are around people that they know,” Karen Potts, the director of the Adams County Health Department in eastern Washington explained to NBC News. “And I think that’s why this sort of event happens. People just feel safe, and they go to the event, and it just spreads so rapidly.”

One August wedding in Maine, for instance, was liked to 177 coronavirus cases and 7 deaths. Many of those cases include people who did not attend the wedding. In fact, none of the deaths traced back to the wedding were attendees. 

An October wedding in Cincinnati led to 32 of the 83 guests getting COVID-19, including grandparents of the bride and groom. In Washington, a 300 person wedding earlier this month has led to 17 people getting the virus so far. 

See what others are saying: (CBS News) (NBC News) (Washington Post)

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