News You May Have Missed: August 23, 2020

Photo of the CZU Lightning Complex fire courtesy of Shmuel Thayer. More of his work, including stunning pictures of the fires, is at:

News You May Have Missed this week is trying to maintain bi-focal vision, with one eye on the California fires and the other on national and world events. Hence, this week we follow the fires and follow up on a number of the stories we have covered before.

With tens of thousands of people having been evacuated, we want to alert everyone to re-register to vote if you expect to be relocated for any length of time. Information about registration is at the California Secretary of State’s office. The deadline to register for the November election is October 19.

Apropos of which, our elections correspondent has a wrap-up of the most recent primaries.


1. Those caught in California fires pay the price for climate change

The California fires, like disasters everywhere, illuminate many fault lines at once. The climate crisis contributes to the higher temperatures and drier conditions, MIT Technology Review points out, citing a paper in Science that shows how “the number of lightning strikes will increase by about 12% for every degree of rise in global average air temperature.” We know that hurricanes have been increasing in the climate crisis, and what called “the ghost” of Hurricane Genevieve is likely to send erratic winds and dry lightning, making the fires worse. As the AP reported, Governor Gavin Newsom said, “If you are in denial about climate change, come to California.”

Newsom has obtained a federal disaster declaration from the Trump administration, permitting access to federal funds and services, even though, as Politico reported, earlier Trump ridiculously said at a rally “They’re starting again in California. I said, you gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forests — there are many, many years of leaves and broken trees and they’re like, like, so flammable, you touch them and it goes up.” California and the Federal government had already reached an agreement–before the present fire crisis–to thin California’s forests, the Mercury News noted.

In Monterey County, around 70,000 acres have burned in the three fires–the River, Carmel and Dolan fires, affecting areas south of Salinas, Carmel Valley and Big Sur, according to the Californian. Big Sur Kate, who for decades has been the hub of information and the facilitator of resources in the Big Sur area, is tracking the Carmel, River and Dolan fires. Evacuation locations and fire maps are located at her blog.

Santa Cruz, Alameda and San Mateo Counties are beset by the CZU Lightning Complex, which has grown to 339,968 acres. 1157 firefighters are on the scene, and air support is now possible, since some of the smoke has cleared. Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty says that 24,000 structures are still threatened; many homes have already been lost. Santa Cruz County has links to fire information and shelter options.  Air quality in the Bay Area and the Central Coast is significantly impaired, according to the Mercury News; full of not only smoke but particulate matter, the air is particularly dangerous for people with lung conditions–and for animals.

The LNU Lightning Complex, which has burned 341,243 acres north of San Francisco as of August 23, is now the second-largest wildfire in California history, SF Gate reports, covering an area nearly ten times the area of San Francisco. Status updates on the LNU fire are available at Cal Fire’s website.

Over 100,000 people statewide have been evacuated, according to KPIX, which has a complete list of evacuation orders for Santa Clara County and the Bay Area. 

Even though California hired and trained 830 new firefighters over the last month, the cadre of firefighters is simply insufficient to deal with the 357 fires across the state, the Mercury News reports, and new firefighters will lack experience in coping with a challenge of this magnitude. Ordinarily California depends on inmate firefighters, but many have been released due to the risk of COVID, and many still incarcerated have COVID, KCBS reported. In short, a vital public service depends on people being in prison. Inmate firefighters are not permitted to become firefighters upon their release because of their criminal record. A bill in the Assembly in 2019 was intended to rectify this inequity, but it failed in February of this year. 

Because there are so many fires in the state, the usual sharing of resources among regions and between the state and federal jurisdictions is not viable, leaving firefighting forces in all areas stretched thin. Firefighting agencies across California have requested aid from other states, the Mercury News reported. While the National Guard is expected to be deployed, it will take a week to train them, fire officials on the Central Coast said. And while volunteers have fought fires on an ad-hoc basis until firefighters could arrive, their presence complicates the work of fire-fighting, as firefighters need to keep their safety in focus. 

Those who are vulnerable in ordinary circumstances are especially so in the fires. California farmworkers have been hit hard by COVID-19; those who are able to work are enduring the the falling ash and smokey air, the Guardian reported. Farmworkers are supposed to be provided with masks when the air is bad, but often they are not; what they need for working in smoke are N-95 masks, but these have mostly gone to hospitals. Paid sick leave is rare. As Lucas Zucker, the policy and communications director for the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, told the Guardian, “people are pushed to make an impossible choice during something like a pandemic or a wildfire.” RLS

If you want to suport those deplaced by the CZU lightning complex, we suggest you support the Santa Cruz Community Foundation. The Red Cross is assisting those displaced by the LNU lightning complex. And for those in Monterey County, Big Sur Kate recommends Monterey County Recovers. The Californian has a listing of where you can help people displaced in Napa, as well as various centers who are assisting animals.

2. How Trump could stay president

Trump is famously opposed to mail ballots, but it turns out he is suspicious of in-person voting as well. Asked about worries around fraud in during in-person voting, he said, “We’re going to have sheriffs, and we’re going to have law enforcement, and we’re going to have hopefully, U.S. attorneys, and we’re going to have everybody, and attorney generals. But it’s very hard,” he told Fox News’s Sean Hannity, the Washington Post reported. Visualize the process whereby law enforcement personnel distinguish legitimate from illegitimate voters and what their criteria might be.

Republicans are also hoping to send 50,000 volunteers to 15 states to “monitor polling places and challenge ballots and voters deemed suspicious,” the New York Times reported. As a result of a court case, the Republican Party is no longer precluded from sending observers to polling places; previously, starting in 1981 with a lawsuit  by the Democratic party, several court decisions up through 2004 found that Republican “poll watchers” were intimidating voters. 

The Trump administration is also suing election boards in Pennsylvania for providing secure drop-boxes for ballots, but in a court hearing, Trump’s lawyers could provide no instances of voter fraud, according to the Intercept.

Newsweek maps a chilling scenario whereby Trump would still be president after the 2020 election: 1) He succeeds in suppressing enough votes in key states; 2) He claims widespread election fraud and invokes emergency powers that allow him to remain president. RLS

3. Latest assaults on the Post Office

  • According to Politico, Louis De Joy was not on the original list of candidates being vetted for the position of Postmaster General. DeJoy was instead nominated, after the compiling of the list and initial vetting, by John Barger, a member of the USPS Board of Governors. This represents a significant break in past practice, as has been noted by a number of members of Congress. Politico quotes a written statement from Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL): “The appointment of Mr. Louis DeJoy as Postmaster General was highly irregular, and we are concerned that his candidacy may have been influenced by political motivations.”
  • Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer continues to seek information about the process by which Louis DeJoy was selected for the position of Postmaster General, but thus far, as the New York Times reports, the US Postal Service (USPS) Board of Directors has continued to refuse to provide the requested information or to allow the consulting firm it employed for the hiring process to be released from the nondisclosure agreement it had signed at the start of the process. Senator Schumer has also requested specific information from Postmaster DeJoy about the specifics of his promise to delay further USPS changes until after the presidential election. In hearing on Friday with the Senate Homeland Security Committee DeJoy repeatedly refused to provide written transcripts of his meetings with the USPS Board of Governors and other documents related to the slowing of mail service under new policies he instituted, according to refinery29. And while DeJoy did promise a delay in changes, he has been clear that he does not intend to reverse the changes already made, which include taking mail sorting machines offline, removing mailboxes, and cutting postal worker overtime.
  • The Anchorage Daily News has reported on a rule change that prevents postal workers from signing as witnesses on absentee ballots. Many states require witnesses, and preventing postal workers from signing as witnesses will make voting more difficult for those who live alone or have limited social contact and who, in the past, might have relied on obtaining the witness signature when dropping off a ballot for mailing. Alaska, one of the states that has a witness requirement, lists postal workers among those who can serve as witnesses, but voters have reported that postal workers are refusing to provide witness signatures, saying they are now barred from doing so.
  • According to the Washington Post, Postmaster General DeJoy not only plans to restart paused changes in postal services: he has a lengthy list of changes in the works that will include raising package mailing rates, charging extra for mail services in Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, ending reduced mailing rates for nonprofit organizations, and leasing USPS space to other government agencies. The Washington Times discusses the possibility of higher postal rates in rural areas where mail delivery is more costly than in urban areas, which would further isolate many of the nation’s isolated rural communities.
  • Vice offers stories about the difficulties small businesses are having relying on the USPS as service becomes more erratic. The New York Times offers similar stories about the experiences of rural Americans, including late deliveries of day-old chicks and ducklings that have resulted in the death of the animals. In other instances, packages containing live animals are being crushed under the backup of coronavirus-related mail-order shipments that have slowed postal deliveries.
  • A piece by NBC reveals that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin requested one-on-one meetings with members of the USPS Board of Directors before a decision was made on the hiring of the new Postmaster General. Because one-on-one meetings do not fall under the “sunshine” rules that require public access to information regarding the meetings of federal agencies, there is no way of knowing what the topic of Mnuchin’s meetings was. Mnuchin has been actively advocating for USPS cuts and blocking attempts to provide additional funding for the USPS during the COVID-19 epidemic.
  • Labor Notes explains the increasing stress postal workers find themselves under as the workforce is temporarily reduced due to COVID-19 while DeJoy’s policies of barring overtime pay that would ensure mail delivery are in effect. Before DeJoy’s, postal workers might take up to an hour and a half to integrate unsorted mail with presorted mail before going out on their routes. New USPS policies limit sorting time to 30 minutes in the morning and provide no time for it in the afternoon. For postal workers who are committed to fully discharging their responsibilities, that cut necessitates working off the clock or skipping breaks. Milwaukee postal workers have responded to these pressures with a committed refusal to work unpaid time or to be “sped up” during their work hours. By insisting on taking the time necessary to do the work they are responsible for, they have been able to push back against new directives and to gain additional time for activities like integrating sorted and unsorted mail. This resolution does, however, require a certain willing blindness on the part of supervisors, who continue to verbally insist on a thirty-minute limit while requiring more time in practice, and postal workers, who continually have to resist the pressures being put on them. S-HP

If you want to help save the Postal Service, tell the Post Office Board of Governors and others that we are not satisfied with promises from DeJoy, demand his resignation, and warn them that we will be closely monitoring the state of the USPS during the presidential election and after. Addresses are here.

4. Children still being separated from parents, housed in hotels, deported

Children are still being detained in hotels, supervised by transportation workers with a private security company; as far as anyone knows, no records are being kept of who they are or where their parents are, and no representation is being offered to them. Some of the children are as young as a year old, the New York Times reports. The ACLU has filed a lawsuit trying to get injunction against the practice of rapidly deporting children, reports Vox, and Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-TX) has called for an investigation On the one hand, the children are at least not in dubious border shelters in 115 degree weather. On the other hand, the potential for abuse is obvious. As an ACLU attorney told the New York Times, ““As dangerous as it is for children to be secretly held in hotels,” he said, “the ultimate problem is that they are expelled without a hearing, regardless of where they are held.” RLS

The Texas Civil Rights Project urges us to tell Congress to investigate the detention of children in hotels. More information is at their site.

5. Trump’s cabinet voted in 2018 to separate children from their families

Led by Trump’s senior advisor, Stephen Miller, Trump’s cabinet took a “show of hands” vote in 2018 to separate children from their families at the border, even though they all knew that the system was not capable of keeping track of the families and children once separated. According to an investigation by NBC News, also expected to be present (though NBC could not confirm that they were) were Jeff Sessions, then Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Undersecretary of Defense John Rood, then-White House chief of staff John Kelly, White House deputy chief of staff Chris Liddell, then-White House counsel Don McGahn and Marc Short, now chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence. RLS


6. On top of the explosion and the downward-spiraling economy, cases of COVID in Lebanon spike

Following the August 4 explosion of a warehouse filled with 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate, Lebanon is coping with a spike in coronavirus cases and has imposed a two-week lockdown. With over 6,000 people injured, the virus likely spread due to crowding in hospitals and close contacts in the desperate search for survivors, as well as among those protesting government inaction, Global News explains. RLS

If you want to assist in Lebanon, a Middle-East scholar of our acquaintance recommends these NGOS.

7. Uyghurs interned, abused, surveilled in China

The situation of Uyghur Muslims in China appears to have slipped off the radar, so it’s time to review what they have been facing. The Chinese government is now holding upwards of one million members of the Uyghur minority in internment camps in the Xinjiang province. The Financial Times reports that interned Uyghurs have been subject to many abuses, including forced sterilization and separation of parents and children (that might sound familiar). Outside of the internment camps, the government is destroying mosques and criminalizing minor expressions of religious practice, including wearing head scarves, growing beards, and refusing to smoke and drink. The government also requires Uyghurs to download tracking software onto their phones and has extensive facial recognition software in use in the Xinjiang province. The government aims to obliterate their Muslim and ethnic/cultural practices a process it calls “deradicalization.” As the Financial Times notes, these abuses border on genocide according to many human rights lawyers

         At the end of July, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced new sanctions against the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps in addition to already existing sanctions that bar sales of U.S. goods to eleven Chinese corporations. Construction Corps, an economic and paramilitary group—as described by the New York Times—also oversees state-run companies that export agricultural products. In 2018, the Construction Corps exported $43 million worth of goods to the U.S. and received $103 million in goods exported from the U.S., not necessarily significant amounts in today’s economy, so there are questions about how much effect the sanctions will have. However, the current pandemic which has lessened the U.S. Government’s willingness to try to maintain pleasant relations with China and Trump’s flailing election campaign may provide the impetus for more significant sanctions, which have long been called for by people both on the right and the left.  

Rights groups are pointing out that the fashion industry depends on forced labor provided by the Uyghur Muslims, the Guardian reported. A coalition of human rights organizations are asking companies not to use cotton and other products produced by Uyghur Muslims in China. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is calling on the National Basketball Association to cease all operations in China, including training programs and broadcasting and licensing agreements, until the persecution of Uyghur Muslims ceases. CAIR cites an ESPN report that one former NBA employee who worked in the Xinjiang province “compared the atmosphere there to ‘World War II Germany.’” S-HP

If you are inclined to urge the NBA to cease all operations in China until the persecution of Uyghur Muslims is halted and call for additional sanctions against China in response to these human rights abuses, appropriate addresses are here.


8. “Race Detection”: The latest use of facial recognition software

We’ve called attention several times to the inaccuracy of facial recognition software and its potential for abuse and recently alerted you to the actions of Clearview AI, a facial recognition software maker: in particular to block privacy laws allowing individuals the right to refuse the company from using online photos of them in developing the software. According to a February article from the Verge, Facebook and LinkedIn prohibit image harvesting for such purposes, but Clearview continues the practice. The Verge now reports that Clearview AI has just signed a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has its own history of using people’s pictures—in this case from state drivers’ license databases—in developing facial recognition programs. Following February reporting from BuzzFeed on the extensive use of Clearview products by private companies, including the NBA, Bank of America, Macy’s and Walmart, Clearview pledged to end such sales, but it intends to continue marketing its products to government and law enforcement entities, as the new ICE contract demonstrates.

The Wall Street Journal reports on a new type of facial analysis: race detection. The “legitimate” use most often cited for such programs is ad targeting, “Use of the software is fraught, as researchers and companies have begun to recognize its potential to drive discrimination, posing challenges to widespread adoption.” Aside from its potential for abuse—it is one of the tools the Chinese government uses to track Uyghur Muslims— this software is problematic for a reason that would be readily understood by anthropologists. As the New York Times explains in science reporting: “the standard labels used to distinguish people by ‘race’ have little or no biological meaning…. the human species is so evolutionarily young, and its migratory patterns so wide, restless and rococo, that it has simply not had a chance to divide itself into separate biological groups or ‘races’ in any but the most superficial ways.” In other words, racial detection is categorizing people under a construct not of biology, but of human society, which has a propensity for labeling people according to an other/self dichotomy. Even if it’s only used to help sell lipstick—something the Wall Street Journal tells us Revlon tried in 2015—it’s “validating” nonexistent differences and enabling those with exclusionary or prejudicial motives to continue in their exclusion and prejudice. S-HP

If you wish to insist (yet again) on clear limits to unauthorized use of individuals’ photographs to develop facial-recognition software and the use of the software by both government agencies and private companies and call for an examination of the potential misuse of “racial-detection” software and for appropriate limits (or even a ban) to be set on its use by private corporations and organizations and the government, you can find your representatives’ contact information


  • The Americans of Conscience Checklist has bracing messages and easy actions you can take.
  • Sarah-Hope’s list is mostly incorporated above, but if you want to work through it with a pile of postcards, here is the link.
  • In her list , Martha points out that the opportunity to comment on proposals to shift liquified natural gas by rail, a practice hat Mother Jones calls “bomb trains,” closes soon. There is a new proposal that lets the FDA not review coronavirus tests, and the USPS Board of Governors will post a notice tomorrow under the Sunshine Act that says they met last week, public not allowed–and no info on agenda, discussion, or decisions has been revealed. And note that you can comment on the usual environmental assaults -reminding us that the administration wants to redefine critical habitat in a way that is deadly for endangered species.
  • Rogan’s list is back, reinvigorated, from hiatus. She suggests a series of actions to address the issues surrounding the Post Office.
  • Heather Cox Richardson this week reflects on the presence of QAnon believers in the Republican party, the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, an opponent of Putin, the arrest of Steve Bannon, the Democratic convention, and more.