Progressive Groups Fight T-Mobile and AT&T’s Texting Rules

Originally published in The Intercept on April 20, 2021.

ABOUT A MONTH out from the 2020 presidential election, an app called RoboKiller published the first glimpse into how campaigns and advocacy groups were leveraging political texts and calls to shape the race. The app, designed to block automated calls and spam texts, found that after June 2020, robocalls declined, but political text messaging picked up. By the end of September, Republicans had sent 1.8 billion texts to voters, and Democrats had sent 902 million.

If you lived in a swing state, you were probably getting more than five or six texts per day from political volunteers — a level you’d never experienced in prior cycles. 

The draw of text messaging as a political outreach tool is not hard to understand in an age when millions pay extra to skip TV ads and emails often go straight to the spam folder. Text message “open rates” tend to be much higher than those of email, making texting a more attractive way for campaigns to engage voters. And while businesses are required under federal law to get affirmative consent to contact individuals by text, so-called peer-to-peer messaging, or P2P, has long operated in a legal gray area. Because peer-to-peer messages are sent by individuals, though aided by applications, they have not qualified as the kind of automated mass text blasts that need opt-in consent.

But mobile carriers like T-Mobile and AT&T are unhappy with the number of spam text messages — including political ones — that their customers receive. In the next few months, they’re rolling out major changes affecting who can send texts and how many they can send. The changes — named “10DLC” for the 10-digit long codes that high-volume businesses and apps use to text local numbers — will require high-volume text purveyors to register with the Campaign Registry, a subsidiary of the Milan-based communications firm Kaleyra. Carriers will impose higher messaging fees on any businesses, campaigns, and other mass texting efforts that don’t file with the Registry, and in some cases block them from delivering messages altogether. 

In recent weeks, a coalition of liberal and progressive advocacy groups have mounted a campaign to put the brakes on 10DLC, rejecting the characterization of their messages as spam and raising concerns that the blunt 10DLC rules will hamper one of their most effective organizing tools. The opaque registration and vetting process, the groups warn, could lead to discrimination against smaller organizations with less-established track records, as well as overwhelm them with new and higher fees. In early March, a coalition of prominent left-leaning groups — including the Working Families Party, MoveOn, the NAACP, People’s Action, the American Federation of Teachers, and Planned Parenthood — sent a letter to the White House and Congress urging intervention.

“Though AT&T and T-Mobile claim 10DLC is intended to reduce unwanted text messages, these restrictions in actuality will quash grassroots advocacy, labor union organizing, and progressive movement building,” the letter states. “We strongly urge AT&T and T-Mobile to reconsider the damage that 10DLC will cause. We are also calling on leaders in Washington to exercise your executive and legislative authority to defend citizen engagement and call on AT&T and T-Mobile to reverse these restrictions.”10DLC points to the extraordinary power tech companies have to regulate who can communicate with the public.

CTIA, the telecom trade association that represents AT&T and T-Mobile USA, argues that mobile carriers have an obligation to respond to user frustration with unwanted text messaging. But critics say 10DLC points to the extraordinary power tech companies have to regulate who can communicate with the public.

“10DLC isn’t legislation, instead you have for-profit companies [that] are now acting as a government,” said Debra Cleaver, founder of VoteAmerica, a nonpartisan voter advocacy group that sent peer-to-peer messaging to 30 million people last cycle. “I am skeptical of private organizations playing this regulatory role.

PEER-TO-PEER texting swept the political world following the 2016 election, when the Bernie Sanders campaign leveraged a young left-leaning texting company called Hustle. Hustle, which worked with roughly 100 campaigns and facilitated 5.5 million texts in 2016, had 1,300 Democratic campaign clients by 2018, sending more than 200 million texts. A number of competitor firms have launched in the years since, including GetThru, RumbleUp, and Opn Sesame. Peer-to-peer texting suddenly allowed campaigns to reach voters, especially in rural areas, who were less likely to have smartphones.

“There’s no question that texting is the breakout tech of 2018,” one Republican digital strategist told the New York Times that summer. 

Earlier that year, a coalition of peer-to-peer texting advocates moved to enshrine their exception to the opt-in requirement, petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to clarify that their texting methods were exempt from the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, the federal law governing telemarketers. In June 2020, the FCC issued a declaratory ruling affirming P2P was indeed distinct from autodialing, a win for campaigns and advocacy groups. Yet despite the FCC’s ruling, under 10DLC, all registered campaigns will be required to get opt-in consent, a major shift from the status quo.

Though liberal groups have expressed fears that the new 10DLC policies could target and silence them, conservatives have long argued that they have more to worry about when it comes to Big Tech discrimination. Over last year’s July 4 weekend, anti-spam monitors blocked a text blast administered by the Trump campaign, and it took five days for Trump officials to resolve the problem. Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T denied any partisan intent, but Republican operatives were left rattled by the experience. 

FOR PROGRESSIVES, one of the most concerning aspects of 10DLC is the issuance of so-called trust scores. Trust scores are algorithmic ratings that the Campaign Registry, a self-described  “reputation authority,” will assign to registered groups. The scores, based on a scale of 1 to 100, will impact how many texts a company or given campaign can send daily. Businesses and groups will also be able to pay for additional vetting from one of three third-party partners — Aegis Mobile, Campaign Verify, and WMC/GLOBAL — to potentially boost their scores.

While the details of the trust scoring system are not well understood, it’s been likened to running a credit score on each group. “They could be looking at things like a group’s personal tax history, members’ criminal histories, they could also be googling to find groups associated with people they deem unsavory,” said Don Calloway, founder of the National Voter Protection Action Fund, which uses peer-to-peer messaging to combat voter suppression. “Grassroots orgs have members who get arrested all the time in peaceful protests.”

Newer groups and groups with less of a national profile fear they’ll be penalized by the algorithms used to calculate trust scores. “My concern is that legacy organizations like NAACP and the National Urban League are going to receive higher ratings simply because of the space that they occupy in the world with no regard for the work that they’re doing,” said Fran Hutchins, the executive director of Equality Federation, a group that helps state-based LGBTQ organizations build capacity.

Calloway said there’s just no scenario in which they could get affirmative texting consent from everyone they currently reach, or even everyone on their email lists, so making it clear how one can opt out is a better option. “You will lose people you’re currently engaging, they simply won’t all be able to opt in,” he said.

Aaron Alter, the director of telecommunications at SignalWire, a nonpartisan communications firm that supports P2P, said their 120 clients who have been vetted already had “not seen any political bias.” Alter, who has spent the past two years working closely with carriers, also predicts that mobile carriers might eventually create a carveout to exempt political groups from the opt-in requirement.

Campaign Verify, which is set to assess political campaigns and committees at the federal, state, and local levels, has an even partisan split by design. But progressives have raised particular concern about the involvement of Aegis Mobile, whose former executive chair, Jeff Goettman, has donated to Donald Trump and Republican Party fundraising platform WinRed. Goettman’s LinkedIn indicates he left the company in 2017 and is currently working on a Republican gubernatorial campaign in Virginia, but critics like Calloway say his history still raises red flags. (Lobbyists for Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile also had close ties with the Trump administration.) Aegis Mobile and Goettman did not return The Intercept’s requests for comment. 

While it’s possible that progressives’ worst fears won’t come to pass, confusion abounds. Mobile carriers and some of their vetting partners have rolled out information with shifting deadlines, incomplete information, and mixed messages about how 10DLC might affect different groups. And all the new fees coming down the pipe are certain to cause new financial strain for organizations with fewer resources.

“I don’t think [carriers are] trying to take advantage but everything at the end of the day is a business,” said Alter. “And from a business perspective they are looking to see if they can capitalize.”

OVER THE LAST several years, mobile carriers have watched lawsuits crop up against unwanted political texts. Last summer, two Minnesota residents brought a class-action lawsuit against Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, alleging receipt of spam texts they had not consented to. The Trump campaign also faced legal challenges for unsolicited messages. CTIA commissioned polling from Morning Consult that showed a majority of Americans considered political texts a nuisance or spam, writing, “This is one area of actual bipartisanship — 74% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats.”

Margaret Boles, a spokesperson for AT&T, told The Intercept that “protecting our customers from unwanted text messages is a top priority for us.” She added that they’re currently in the process of collecting feedback from industry partners to “improve our internal processes, help to identify problem areas and ensure the integrity of our 10DLC platform to the benefit of message senders and receivers.”

A representative from T-Mobile did not return requests for comment.

For now, there are no plans for federal legislation to stop 10DLC, but progressive activists hope that individual members of Congress will contact mobile carriers and request that they partner with concerned groups before rolling out final changes.

“We’re asking members to use their influence,” said Calloway. His coalition has already had a meeting with Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., who chairs the Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband. Calloway added that he has spoken personally with about 30 members’ offices but stressed that his organizing work represents only a fraction of the total.

Luján’s office did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment.

“We encourage wireless carriers, aggregators, and others in the wireless ecosystem to adopt a more collaborative approach to text messaging regulations and actually engage with the communities impacted by these changes,” said LaToia Jones, a senior vice president at Hustle, “instead of unilaterally dictating opaque rules that disenfranchise voters and chill civic engagement without any external input or oversight.”

A Debate Over Carbon Capture in the Infrastructure Bill Could Test the Labor-Climate Alliance

Originally published in In These Times on April 15, 2021.

n late March, President Joe Biden unveiled a $2.3 trillion infrastructure package, the American Jobs Plan, that his administration hopes to move forward this year. The plan would make major investments in improving physical infrastructure such as roads, schools and bridges while also creating good-paying jobs, expanding collective bargaining rights and funding long-term care services under Medicaid. 

The president’s plan also endorsed another proposal that a group of bipartisan lawmakers hope makes it into a final bill: expanding carbon-capture utilization and storage (CCUS) in the United States. The SCALE Act, introduced in mid-March by eleven senators and six House representatives, represents the country’s first comprehensive CO2 infrastructure and jobs bill. In describing the president’s infrastructure plan, the White House said it ​“will support large-scale sequestration efforts” that are ​“in line with the bipartisan SCALE Act.” 

The legislation, which would authorize $4.9 billion in spending over five years, would create programs to transport and store carbon underground. Its provisions include establishing low-interest loan programs modeled off of federal highway development programs, increasing EPA funding for permitting carbon storage wells, and providing grants to states to create their own permitting programs. Advocates point to countries such as Canada, Norway and Australia where elected officials have made similar investments in carbon storage infrastructure. 

The SCALE Act is notable both for the support it has, and hasn’t, received. Its early endorsers include a half-dozen industrial labor unions, centrist climate groups like the National Wildlife Federation, and energy companies like GE Gas Power and Calpine. Fossil fuel industry support for carbon-capture has historically been a top reason why progressive climate groups, meanwhile, remain skeptical of the idea, wary of subsidizing anything that amounts to corporate giveaways to some of the world’s worst polluters. While carbon-capture has long been a flashpoint in Democratic climate politics, most critics of the policy have stayed quiet on the SCALE Act for now.

Modeling released in December by the Princeton Net-Zero America Project found that construction of nearly 12,000 miles of pipelines capable of storing 65 million tons of COper year would be needed by 2030 for the United States to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 — a stated goal of the Biden administration. The Clean Air Task Force, a climate advocacy group, says the SCALE Act programs are ​“consistent” with the quantity and timeline of infrastructure deployment needed to meet those goals.

To date, nearly all U.S. carbon-capture projects are situated near existing COpipelines and Lee Beck, the CCUS policy innovation director at the Clean Air Task Force, says the SCALE Act’s goal would be to capture emissions from multiple sources and then transport the COfor storage elsewhere, as is currently being carried out through Canada’s Alberta Carbon Trunk Line System and Norway’s Northern Lights Project.

Supporters point to a number of recent scientific analyses that make the case for greater investment in carbon-capture. In February, the National Academies of Sciences released a report on decarbonizing the U.S. energy system which recommends that, over next decade, officials should focus on increasing deployment of carbon-capture technologies by a factor of ten while investing in permanent CO2 storage infrastructure. In 2020, the International Energy Agency warned that it would be ​“virtually impossible” to reach net-zero emissions without carbon capture technology, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said carbon capture is likely necessary to meet global climate targets. Supporters note that renewable energy sources like wind and solar are not viable alternatives for reducing carbon emissions in the industrial sector, which account for 32 percent of the United States’ energy use and nearly a quarter of its direct greenhouse gas emissions. 

President Biden’s campaign climate plan called for accelerating development of carbon-capture and he included Brad Markell, the executive director of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council, on his Department of Energy transition team. Markell endorsed the SCALE Act in March and said it ​“will be crucial to meeting President Biden’s goals of reaching net-zero emissions in the power sector by 2035 and economywide by 2050.”

In addition to Biden’s support, the Congressional politics bode well for SCALE Act advocates. Introduced by Sens. Chris Coons (D‑Del.) and Bill Cassidy (R‑LA) in the Senate, the bill would first go through the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, where Joe Manchin (D‑W.V.), a co-sponsor of the bill, serves as chair. The House version of the bill was introduced by Reps. Marc Veasey (D‑TX) and David McKinley (R‑W.V.) and the chamber passed several carbon-capture bills last year. In March, Democratic governors of Pennsylvania and Louisiana (Tom Wolf and John Bel Edwards) joined the Republican governors of Oklahoma and Wyoming (Kevin Stitt and Mark Gordon), in writing a letter to Congress urging the passage of the SCALE Act in any future infrastructure package.

In an email, Sen. Coons told In These Times that he ​“appreciates [Energy] Secretary Granholm’s public statements in support of CCUS, including CCUS transport infrastructure, and am encouraged by my conversations with the Biden administration over the last several months.” 

Perhaps the biggest asset working in the SCALE Act’s favor is the support of organized labor. Biden has faced heat in the media in recent weeks over whether he can truly deliver an ambitious climate agenda while supporting unions. The SCALE Act has endorsements from labor groups including the Utility Workers Union of America, IBEW and North America’s Building Trades Unions. And the BlueGreen Alliance — a coalition of labor and environmental groups — supports CCUS, though has not yet taken a position on the bill. One analysis commissioned through the Decarb America Research Initiative estimated that the SCALE Act would generate roughly 13,000 jobs annually over the 5‑year period, though many unions are excited by the prospect of simply maintaining existing jobs.

“We see carbon-capture technology as a way to retain jobs in industries that are core sectors of our union,” said Anna Fendley, the director of Regulatory and State Policy for the United Steelworkers. ​“It feels like the conversation around reducing emissions in the U.S. has been so focused on the power sector for so long and now a lot of groups and advocates are learning more about the industrial sector.” 

A false solution?

Carbon-capture opponents have described the policy as one of several ​“false solutions” to the climate crisis. Though many of these activists typically say that we can’t afford not to invest in fighting climate change, on matters of CCUS, they argue the technologies are too expensive, too under-developed, and will detract from other important investments that government needs to make in order to transform the economy. At worst, critics fear investments in carbon-capture could prolong overall dependence on fossil fuels. 

Last September, the House of Representatives passed a clean energy package, but after a coalition of progressive climate groups — including Sunrise Movement, Friends of the Earth, and the Climate Justice Alliance—protested the bill’s inclusion of pro-carbon capture provisions, 18 Democrats, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D‑Mich.), Ilhan Omar (D‑Minn.), and Ayanna Pressley (D‑Mass.), voted against it. In These Times reached out to a number of climate groups that have opposed carbon-capture infrastructure in the past, including Sunrise Movement, Friends of the Earth, and the Labor Network for Sustainability. Most have not spoken publicly on the SCALE Act to date and declined to comment for this story. 

Limited organizational capacity for rapid legislative analysis is one possible factor for the silence. Joe Uehlein, president of the Labor Network for Sustainability, said their group had not heard about the SCALE Act prior to In These Times’ inquiry. While noting they are ​“not in the CCUS camp,” Uehlein said the group hasn’t yet decided how it plans to respond to the bill. The Sierra Club declined the Charleston Gazette-Mail​’s request for comment on the SCALE Act. 

Some left-wing organizations, like Sunrise Movement and Evergreen Action, have previously acknowledged that industrial carbon capture could be acceptable, and others have expressed more interest in direct air capture, a method that sucks COout of the atmosphere. 

Basav Sen, the Climate Justice Project Director at the Institute for Policy Studies and the co-chair of the Energy Democracy Working Group at the Climate Justice Alliance, told In These Times that rather than protesting individual pieces of carbon-capture legislation — ​“which would make it a game of whack-a-mole” — environmental justice groups in his coalition are focused on educating members of Congress and their staff on why they should avoid such ​“false solutions” altogether. He added that putting new demands on the electrical grid through CCUS, direct air capture, and even industrial production of steel and cement at current levels was misguided at this stage of the transition away from fossil fuel energy.

Sen also criticized carbon-capture advocates for citing the 2018 IPCC report as evidence that CCUS is needed, as opposed to reforestation which the IPCC also explored. Reforestation, or replanting an area with tress, is another way to remove COfrom the air. Research suggests this solution can also offer significant short-term emissions reductions, but a 2019 IPCC report also warned that planting large-scale forests for carbon-removal efforts could lead to increased food insecurity and other environmental issues.

Beck, of the Clean Air Task Force, argued that it would be irresponsible to take any decarbonization options off the table in 2021, and emphasized that building out COinfrastructure would not help keep aging or non-economical facilities online. Shannon Heyck-Williams of the National Wildlife Federation agreed that ​“when it comes to coal power generation, there really is no future for coal power in America and carbon-capture doesn’t change that.”

But Beck and Heyck-Williams also maintained that, since there are so many existing natural gas facilities in the United States, it does makes sense to try and capture the carbon coming out of those plants — at least for now. ​“It would be faster to retrofit some of these facilities than expect they will be all phased out in the next decade in the current climate policy environment,” argued Beck.

SCALE Act supporters know they’ll have to tread carefully with language around COpipelines, given the years of dedicated activism in the climate movement against new oil and gas pipelines. Advocates of CCUS prefer to focus on phrases like ​“COinfrastructure” and ​“carbon management,” which they hope will steer the conversation away from flashpoints like Keystone XL. Beck notes that carbon infrastructure includes not just pipelines but also shipping, rail and barge. ​“COpipelines are very different in terms of size and safety,” added Jessie Stolark, the public policy and members relations manager for the Carbon Capture Coalition. ​“But to be completely honest, I do think we have an uphill battle in terms of reassuring people and conveying that kind of information.”

Whether progressive climate groups will choose to rally opposition to a congressional infrastructure bill that includes the SCALE Act — like they did for the clean energy package in 2020 — remains unclear. It will undoubtedly be tougher to pressure lawmakers to vote against a package that includes so many other key priorities. For now, rather than take aim at Biden’s new infrastructure plan for its support for carbon-capture, progressive climate groups have stuck to criticizing the package for committing too little spending on climate change mitigation efforts overall, with some advocates calling for a minimum of $10 trillion in spending over the next decade.

“It’s up to us to ensure that this proposal is strengthened, becomes law and that it is the first of many pieces of legislation that will address the many crises facing our generation,” said Deirdre Shelly of the Sunrise Movement. 

Inside the Winning Fight for Reparations in Athens, Georgia

Originally published in The Intercept on April 9, 2021.

WITHIN THE BOUNDS of a block in Athens, Georgia, three high-rise dorms stand where 50 Black families used to live. The dorms were built in the 1960s as part of the federal government’s urban renewal program, which empowered cities and colleges to seize property in the name of so-called slum clearance. As the University of Georgia and the Athens city government requisitioned lots and burned homes to the ground, they steered many residents into public housing. According to the University of Richmond’s “Renewing Inequality” project, 298 families in Athens were displaced during this period, 176 of them families of color.

In February, nearly six decades later, the county began its first attempt to offer redress. “The Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County extends to former residents of Athens’ Urban Renewal Districts, their descendants, and to all Athenians a deep and sincere expression of apology and regret for the pain and loss stemming from this time, and a sincere commitment to work toward better outcomes in all we do moving forward,” pledged Mayor Kelly Girtz in a signed proclamation. Two weeks after that, the county’s 10 commissioners voted unanimously to adopt a resolution that apologized specifically for the county’s role in destroying Linnentown, the Black, middle-class community that preexisted the UGA dorms. 

The resolution acknowledges the seizure of residents’ homes and the perpetration of “an act of institutionalized white racism and terrorism resulting in intergenerational Black poverty, dissolution of family units, and trauma.” It pledges, among other things, to erect an on-site memorial honoring the legacy of Linnentown and create a new center on slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the future of Athens’s Black communities. Perhaps most importantly, it promises to calculate the total amount of intergenerational wealth lost through urban renewal and use that number to inform annual participatory budgeting on projects for redress — in other words, public funding for reparations.

The resolution is the first official act of reparations in Georgia, but those involved in its creation hope it won’t be the last. They aim to model an example for communities throughout the state and across the country, even as they recognize their success in the progressive city of Athens will be difficult to replicate. Nationally, reparations remains controversial at best. Last summer, amid mass protests for racial justice, one poll found just 1 in 5 respondents agreed the United States should use “taxpayer money to pay damages to descendants of enslaved people in the United States.” At the time, the city council in Asheville, North Carolina, approved a reparations resolution, but leaders have since stalled in distributing funds, and the resolution’s lead sponsor lost his reelection. 

Still, Girtz told The Intercept, “I think it will spread to other places.” The mayor pointed to St. Paul, Minnesota, which earlier this year passed a resolution to study reparations, and his hometown of Norfolk, Virginia, which is also reckoning with its lasting segregation. Evanston, Illinois, a wealthy Chicago suburb, last month announced its own reparations program: a plan to distribute $10 million over the next decade to Black residents who can show that they or their direct relatives lived in the city and suffered from racial discrimination between 1919 and 1969.

In February, White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed that President Joe Biden is open to studying federal reparations, though Biden has not committed to signing H.R. 40, a bill to fund a study of slavery and recommend “appropriate remedies,” in the event that it passes. The former Linnentown residents say they hope to testify before Congress on reparations and the harms of urban renewal. They have also requested meetings with their new senators, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, and plan to push for a constitutional change at the state Legislature to make distributing direct payments easier.

Hattie Thomas Whitehead, a 72-year-old Black woman and fourth-generation Athenian, is one of at least 10 living former Linnentown residents. She knows their organizing work is far from over and that the next few months will be critical for ensuring that her government meets its pledges. Still, she can hardly believe they’ve reached this point.

“They voted on it in Black History Month, which is just a tremendous time for it to get approved,” she told The Intercept. “The night I watched the vote, and it was 100 percent, I was brought to tears.”

Thomas Whitehead lived in Linnentown until she was 14, when urban renewal came to Athens. Leaders burned down her home and directed her family into public housing. While details of Linnentown’s destruction had been passed down orally for decades, Thomas Whitehead said that until recently, descendants just lacked the hard data needed to make their case for justice. “Being part of this project has given me a voice,” she said. “It’s bringing healing.”

FINDING DATA ON the destruction of Linnentown began as an accident. A philosophy doctorate and library employee at UGA named Joseph Carter was doing research in December 2018 for a living wage campaign with the United Campus Workers of Georgia — hoping, he said, “to make the case for how the university suppresses wages in the county, and how that then has an effect on the local housing market.”

He called up an Athens-Clarke County commissioner, Melissa Link, who said she had heard rumors of an old community that used to be where three high-rise UGA dorms now stand. Carter began digging around in the UGA Special Collections Libraries, where he discovered many documents about urban renewal, including early 20th-century fire insurance maps that showed the Linnentown homes. The case file was called “Urban Renewal Project GA. R-50.”

Through a friend of Link’s, Carter connected with Geneva Johnson, a former Linnentown resident still living in Athens. When contractors demolished Johnson’s childhood home, her father was permitted to move another Linnentown house off-site to the neighborhood of East Athens, where she still lives today. Her home is one of just three surviving structures from the neighborhood.

Johnson, Carter, and Thomas Whitehead connected with three more Linnentown descendants, and together they launched a campaign called the Linnentown Project in September 2019.

That month, Thomas Whitehead spoke publicly about her displacement for the first time, in a speech she gave to a full house at a local arts center. In the autumn months that followed, the Linnentown Project began drafting its proposed resolution and started its outreach to UGA and city leaders. 

Word spread through the community, and by February 2020, dozens of residents and students poured into Athens’s City Hall to demand recognition and reparations for Linnentown descendants. Protesters stood with hand-painted signs bearing messages like “UGA Took Our Homes Away” and “Redress for Linnentown.”

EVEN IN A left-leaning city like Athens, unanimous support for reparations was in no way guaranteed. Some lawmakers initially shied away from using terms like “white racism and terrorism” to describe the displacement of Black families and the burning of their homes. According to Mariah Parker, a county commissioner who helped draft the proposal, some leaders found the language too harsh and feared alienation from the university, which has refused to acknowledge any harms related to Athens’s urban renewal. Commissioners Patrick Davenport and Russell Edwards were originally against the resolution, but by the night of the vote in February, Edwards apologized for his initial opposition.

“It was an act of terrorism. It was an act of white supremacy,” he said. Davenport voted in favor as well. 

Last June, Jerry NeSmith, another commissioner who opposed the resolution, died in an accident; his successor, Jesse Houle, made support for the Linnentown Project part of their campaign platform. Carol Myers, another commissioner newly elected last year, also ran in support of the Linnentown Project. 

As the year went on, some Linnentown Project activists protested for racial justice following the death of George Floyd. One local demonstration ended with Athens-Clarke police and National Guardsmen spraying tear gas on peaceful protesters, and soon after, Girtz approached Thomas Whitehead about moving forward with the Linnentown reparations effort.

“My hunch is he realized how much he screwed up with the protests, with the tear gassing and the arrests, and so then made the decision to move ahead with the Linnentown committee,” said Carter.

While a year of pressure, one-on-one meetings, and racial justice organizing helped bring the mayor and all 10 county commissioners on board, the university still spurns any suggestion of its culpability.

UGA sent a statement to Athens-Clarke County commissioners in January 2020, saying it “respectfully disagrees” with the “conclusions” of the Linnentown Project. As college enrollment surged during the 1960s, institutions nationwide began taking advantage of eminent domain to make room for new students. Historical documents reveal how UGA officials worked closely with city and federal leaders to leverage funds and move urban renewal forward.

Thomas Whitehead said she’s disappointed but not surprised UGA has given them the cold shoulder. “UGA has never acknowledged anything they’ve ever done that was not in the community’s favor,” she said. 

This year, the university is celebrating its 60th anniversary of desegregation, replete with signs and commemorative events throughout the spring. On its special website for the cause, the university is soliciting donations to “support diversity, equity and inclusion efforts across campus today.” 

Meanwhile, UGA continues to dismiss entreaties from Black Linnentown descendants. “They continue to ignore the residents and that in itself is just a continued slap in the face,” said Carter. “They’re just acting like it’s the 1960s all over again.”

UGA did not return The Intercept’s requests for comment.

While local leaders say they would prefer to partner with UGA to create their wall of recognition, Athens-Clarke County intends to build the memorial with or without the university’s collaboration.

“It’s best to acknowledge that there were some horrible things done in the not-so-distant past, because then we can move together more strongly,” said Girtz. “We’re going to be moving forward, and I would hope UGA joins us.”

THE ATHENS BUDGET planning period runs from now through June. As part of that process, a committee chaired by Thomas Whitehead and fellow Linnentown descendant Bobby Crook will make recommendations for how to spend the reparations funding.

Girtz is looking to hire an economist to help community members calculate how much more money Linnentown descendants might have today, had they been permitted to stay in their homes. He plans first to approach Mehrsa Baradaran, a former UGA law professor and the author of “Color of Money,” a book on the racial wealth gap. Baradaran now works as a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and progressives nationally have been pushing Biden to appoint her to lead the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

Parker, the commissioner, said she sees the work ahead as focused on both delivering material redress to descendants of Linnentown and launching additional efforts to help other lost and displaced communities in Athens. She and several local activists plan to ramp up pressure on their state legislature to change the so-called gratuities clause in Georgia’s constitution. The clause, which was initially passed as an anti-corruption measure, prevents local governments from providing direct cash payments to individuals and nonprofits. This hampers not only reparations efforts but also broader economic relief.

In January and February, Thomas Whitehead sent letters to Ossoff and Warnock’s offices to request assistance tackling Georgia’s gratuities clause. The senators have not yet answered, nor did they return The Intercept’s requests for comment.

Carter acknowledges that the success in Athens could be difficult to replicate elsewhere, particularly given the treasure trove of evidence they had available to make their case.

“There are communities in Atlanta that were affected by Georgia Tech and Georgia State that we want to take a look at, but the thing I’m concerned about is the availability of historical documents and who from those communities is still around,” he said. “To do this organizing you have to come with evidence, and with residents who see this as something that they want. Are the residents alive? Are they willing? Interested?”

According to Carter, an essential part of the process in Athens is that the decisions about how to achieve reparations have been on the Linnentown descendants’ own terms, and that they’ve been given power by their local government to make those calls. 

“We believe part of reparations should be to reallocate not just money but political power,” he said. “It’s not just you write a check and you’re done.”

Utah’s Hard-Won Bail Reforms Are In Jeopardy

Originally published in The Appeal on March 19, 2021.

Utah is on the verge of either rolling back or reaffirming a bail reform law that passed in 2020 with an unusual amalgam of supporters. Lawmakers from both parties—alongside prosecutors, public defenders, and advocates—backed the reforms, which passed the GOP-controlled legislature last spring and curtailed the use of cash bail. But almost immediately after the bill took effect in October, some Republican lawmakers and sheriffs began criticizing the changes as a threat to public safety, and the legislature passed a bill to repeal the measures this month.

Now the repeal will either be signed or vetoed by Governor Spencer Cox, a Republican, who has indicated that he’s on the fence about what to do.

The outcome will have implications for Utah residents awaiting trial, where cash bail has long been the most widely used pretrial tool. Nationwide, advocates have faulted the cash bail system for the disproportionate pretrial incarceration of poor people, especially people of color, who often face further consequences like job loss as a result. 

State Representative Stephanie Pitcher, a Democrat, says she has pushed to reduce the use of cash bail in Utah out of frustration that people charged with crimes either remain in jail or go free based solely on whether they have means to pay. “This came from my own experiences in court and realizing it’s such a nonsensical system that we decide pretrial release based on wealth,” said Pitcher, who is a prosecutor.

At the start of 2020, Pitcher introduced the bail reform—House Bill 206—which required judges to set the “least restrictive” conditions to ensure a defendant comes to court. In effect, the bill transitioned Utah’s judiciary away from the bail schedule courts had long used, which assigned a specific dollar amount to every offense. Cash bail could still be used under HB 206, but judges would have more discretion and obligation to consider other factors. The bill gained traction in the legislature, which was and remains Republican-controlled l, and ultimately passed; it took effect Oct. 1.

Utah’s bail reform did not go as far as states like Illinois and New Jersey, which in recent years have sought to virtually end the use of cash bail. Pitcher did not clarify if she supported eliminating cash bail but told The Appeal: Political Report that she does not see that happening in Utah  “anytime soon” because of the influence of the bail bond lobby. Still, local activists have said that despite its limitations, the new law is having a positive effect. Founders of the Salt Lake Community Bail Fund said they were able to free far more people after HB 206 took effect because bail sums dropped from the “astronomically large” amounts that defendants were held on before. 

HB 206 wasn’t the first time cash bail came under scrutiny in Utah. In 2015, a group of prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, sheriffs, bail bond agents and academics prepared a report for the Utah Judicial Council on pretrial release best practices. A Republican state senator introduced a bill similar to Pitcher’s in 2016, though it didn’t make it out of committee. There have also been several legislative audits of Utah’s pretrial system over the last few years. And Shima Baradaran Baughman, a criminal law professor at the University of Utah, has been urging bail reform in her state since 2010.  She said she made the case that “conservative states should rely on bail reform to save money” to the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. “Less people in jail means less money spent on jail beds. Since Utah ha[d] a problem with jail beds … this was compelling,” Baughman said.

Sim Gill, a Democrat who is the district attorney of Salt Lake County, has spoken against repealing the new bail law and pointed out that Utah has a history of embracing criminal justice reforms, particularly when they encourage fiscal savings. In 2019, Utah became the second state to pass a bill that would automatically clear criminal records of people convicted of low-level crimes, and taxpayer savings was one benefit of the law that proponents touted. 

Troy Rawlings, the chief prosecutor for Davis County,  has also vocally opposed the repeal. Rawlings, a Republican, told the Political Report he grew interested in tackling cash bail about four years ago, when he started to learn ofcivil lawsuits in other states brought by individuals who argued they had been unconstitutionally detained because of their inability to pay for release. These judgments prompted conversations among people in Rawlings’s office about cash bail-related issues.

Despite the growing bipartisan support for bail reform, criticisms started pouring in when HB 206 took effect—not just from those who opposed the new law, but also from advocates who say that it left too much room for prosecutors and judges to continue locking people up. Ben Aldana, a public defender in Utah County, said he noticed judges began holding more people without bail, even for low-level offenses. Although Aldana doesn’t inherently oppose holding people without bail, he says everyone should be afforded a hearing to call witnesses before any decision like that is made. “When my clients were denied the right to bail I was told to go pound sand and prosecutors would later come to them with a plea agreement if they pled guilty,” he said. “I was and still am very upset about this; it flies in the face of a fair system.” 

Leaders with the Salt Lake Community Bail Fund, which launched in September, say that although the monetary amounts of the bail requests they received decreased significantly after HB 206 took effect, the law was not applied retroactively, and it still allowed judges to include a lot of challenging stipulations for defendants, like electronic monitoring and requirements to show up at police departments at unusual times. “Yes, we saw more lower bails, but we still see high bails sometimes in excess of $5,000,” Emily Lyver, a co-founder, told the Political Report. “It’s purely discretionary.”

Meanwhile, a vocal campaign against the reforms emerged, led by the Utah Sheriffs’ Association and House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, who introduced a bill to repeal HB 206 in January. Opponents argued that the reforms had failed and resulted in too many violent offenders going free, though they had no credible data to back up their assertions. Some of the actions they complained about, like judges issuing penny warrants to keep jail populations low, were actually driven by COVID-19 concerns. “Penny warrants are 100 percent COVID-related and not at all anything to do with House Bill 206,” an assistant state court administrator testified in January.

Although no state-level data is yet available, Gill said data from his county showed the reforms were working as intended, with more low-level offenders released without cash bail and more violent offenders detained. Gill, Rawlings, and David Leavitt, the Republican chief prosecutor for Utah County, represent the state’s three most populous counties; they called efforts to repeal HB 206 “bad faith.” The executive director and president of the Utah Sheriffs’ Association did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

One Republican state senator, Todd Weiler, sponsored a bill this winter to amend HB 206 rather than repeal it. He convened a working group of stakeholders to craft agreeable language. Aldana was involved and supported the “fix-it bill,” which among other things would have ensured bail hearings. “That resolved a lot of the issues I had had, because instead of just willy-nilly denying someone the right to bail, a judge would have to really think about it and say well if I deny this person bail, the defendant will now have the right to subpoena witnesses,” Aldana said. Pitcher and the ACLU of Utah also supported the fix-it bill, but instead Schultz’s repeal bill passed and is now awaiting the governor’s signature.

Rawlings suspects that proponents of full repeal are doing the bidding of the bail bond industry, which has stayed conspicuously quiet this year. “Everyone knows it,” he told the Political Report. “They’re propping up sheriffs as surrogates, and it will be very interesting to see the campaign contributions to legislators who voted in favor of repeal.”

Governor Cox has said he is “not crazy” about approving the bail reform repeal bill, and is interested in convening a special session to address the issue. His deadline to make a decision on whether to veto is Thursday.

Supporters of HB 206 say one problem with repealing the bill is that the courts have already spent a year updating their rules and procedures, and eliminating the statute now would cause confusion. “It’s like unscrambling an egg,” said Aldana. “You can’t do it and you’ll be left with a mess.”

Rawlings said he thinks it would be tough to get consensus in a special session for a new bail reform bill, though he believes the judiciary will continue to consider risk factors and ability to pay regardless of what the governor decides. “We’re hearing from judges that they think this is the right thing to do, too,” he said.

Activists with the Salt Lake Community Bail Fund opposed the repeal effort, but say if it succeeds, then they will make every effort to be at the table for the next bill. “In some ways it would be a unique opportunity for us to be invited to the idea table,” said Lexie Wilson. “We want reforms to help build towards eliminating cash bail and not adding other carceral obligations.”

Amazon Retaliated Against Chicago Workers Following Spring Covid-19 Protests, NLRB Finds

Originally published in The Intercept on March 17, 2021.

IN APRIL 2020, as the world was coming to terms with the new coronavirus pandemic, workers at an Amazon sorting facility in Chicago launched a series of safety strikes to demand Covid-19 protections for all staff. It was one of several organized protests by Amazon workers nationwide, and the actions in Chicago, at the DCH1 delivery station in Pilsen on the south side of the city, came after management announced in late March that a worker had tested positive for the virus.

“We decided to take a stand,” said Shantrece Johnson, a worker who was involved. “Most of us, we don’t mind working, but we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and we had the potential to bring this [virus] home.” Johnson ultimately contracted Covid-19 in mid-April, before Amazon agreed to provide personal protective equipment to workers at the warehouse.

Roughly 70 to 80 workers participated in the four safety strikes. Among other things, the Chicago workers demanded that their warehouse be shut down for two weeks and cleaned; that Amazon cover the costs of any medical bills for workers who get sick on the job; that the warehouse pause processing nonessential items; and that management provide immediate transparency if and when anyone else got infected.

Following the strikes, DCH1 Amazon workers said they faced retaliation in the form of intimidation and disciplinary write-ups. Johnson herself was written up, she said, for ostensibly not obeying social distancing. The workers banded together and filed a charge with their regional National Labor Relations Board office. Their charge, known as an unfair labor practice, or ULP, included five allegations of National Labor Relations Act violations. The workers accused their site lead, Domonic Wilkerson, of unlawfully disciplining them for protected activities, unlawfully interrogating them, unlawfully engaging in surveillance, unlawfully breaking up their gatherings, and maintaining an “overly broad rule” that precluded gatherings on Amazon’s property outside their normal shifts.

In text messages reviewed by The Intercept, the NLRB regional agent assigned to the case informed the workers on February 24 that the federal agency had reached a decision and found merit to the workers’ claims. On March 10, the NLRB told the workers that “Amazon has stated its intent to settle” and that the agency was working with the company to clarify an agreement. (A settlement would lay out how Amazon will remedy the violations, but if Amazon does not ultimately agree to settle, then the NLRB would issue a complaint and schedule a hearing before an administrative law judge.) The timeline is not clear, but as redress, the workers requested that Amazon provide notice, both physically and electronically, to all relevant employees about what happened and make clear that their rights will not be violated again.

Neither Amazon nor Wilkerson returned requests for comment, and an NLRB spokesperson told The Intercept that the agency could not comment on the case until a final decision is released.

Ted Miin, one of the workers who filed the charge, said that the most significant thing to him about the NLRB’s decision is “the message that we have rights, we should know them, and we should know how to use the NLRB as a tool to make more room for us to organize.” Miin said that, while anecdotal, he feels that over the last year as their charges have been investigated, management has “been more careful” with workers on a daily basis; Miin also said that personally he felt higher-ups were more accommodating with requests for warehouse supplies, equipment, and day-to-day issues.

Johnson also called the NLRB decision “a major victory” given Amazon’s “big team of lawyers.” Both Johnson and Miin said they received calls from the regional NLRB in late February informing them that the NRLB found merit to their claims.

THE AMAZON WORKER organizing happening in Chicago — under the banner of Amazonians United Chicagoland — looks different from the ongoing high-profile union drive in Bessemer, Alabama.

In Alabama, nearly 6,000 Amazon warehouse workers have been casting votes on whether to form a union with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Voting continues through March 29, and if a majority votes in favor, it would mark the first Amazon union in the United States. (The only previous election, at a warehouse in Delaware in 2014, failed.) The Washington Post reported that more than 1,000 Amazon workers in other parts of the country have contacted the RWDSU about potentially launching their own union organizing drives, and President Joe Biden recently offered support for the workers.

In Chicago and in other cities, including New York City and Sacramento, there are worker-led Amazonians United groups that consider themselves unions, though they are not affiliated with any formal legally recognized union like the RWDSU.

“We are not affiliated with any legal organization that claims to be a union, especially major business unions, many of whom have tried to recruit us,” said Miin. He said that they support the Amazon workers in Bessemer and did not rule out affiliating with a formal union in the future but that they have a different approach to worker organizing. Miin added that affiliating with a legal union would be a decision determined democratically by the workers later when and if they felt ready.

Amazonians United Chicagoland got its start in April 2019, when a handful of DCH1 workers came together to demand clean water be made available to them in the warehouse. Their five-gallon water stations were often left open to dusty air and were never clean, and there were often no cups available, they said. Workers collected 150 signatures from colleagues protesting the conditions, and after delivering the petition to management, Amazon consented to provide water.

Later that summer, workers banded together again to organize for air conditioning, health insurance, and a pay increase, and by the fall, workers organized around a manager they felt was abusive. Miin says their largest campaign was their successful effort in early 2020, before Covid-19 hit, to push for paid time off. Their organizing was inspired by a similar PTO campaign launched by Amazon workers in Sacramento in December 2019. In a formal update dated March 20, 2020, Amazon confirmed that the workers could begin taking paid time off.

While the workers are celebrating their not-yet-official victory at the NLRB, their latest fight is against a new policy Amazon began rolling out in January known as “megacycle” shifts. These 10 1/2-hour shifts, which run from 1:20 a.m. to 11:50 a.m., were presented to DCH1 workers as new nonnegotiable work schedules going forward. Vice reported in February that the megacycle shifts were being rolled out quietly at delivery stations nationwide, collapsing multiple shorter shift options into one long one. Workers noted that the new option leaves no flexibility for parents and caretakers. Amazon also recently announced it would be closing the DCH1 warehouse, shutting down operations on April 2.

Amazonians United is fighting back, and recently launched a new petition for megacycle accommodations, with demands that include a $2-per-hour pay increase, Lyft rides to and from work to compensate for inaccessible public transit after midnight, and flexibility for associates who can’t work the full shift. They say if Amazon tries to split them up into different warehouses, they’ll respond by organizing new warehouses.

“I think we’d be really naive to believe closing DCH1 was in no way related to the organizing we’ve been doing,” said Miin.

The Coronavirus Made The Radical Possible

Originally published in The New York Times on March 11, 2021.

Last spring, as a poorly understood virus swept the planet­, something remarkable happened: Across the country, all levels of government put in place policies that just a few months earlier would have been seen by most people — not to mention most politicians — as radical and politically naïve.

Nearly 70 percent of states ordered bans on utility shut-offs, and more than half did so for evictions. Mayors authorized car-free streets to make cities safer for pedestrians, and the federal government nearly tripled the average unemployment benefit. Within weeks, states eliminated extortionist medical co-pays for prisoners and scrapped bail. New Jersey passed a bill that released more than 2,200 incarcerated people all at once.

The pandemic has been a long nightmare, but those were progressive pipe dreams turned reality. The arrival of the coronavirus, along with the wide-scale economic shutdowns to slow its spread, forced American policymakers to admit that a new world wasn’t just possible — it was necessary.

While the United States ultimately failed to deliver a coordinated response to the pandemic and millions of people are still struggling, there are important lessons here. Over the past several months, I’ve interviewed dozens of activists and policy professionals who have recounted stories of politics shifting quickly on issues they have worked on for years. Measures that were once viewed as likely to cause a spike in crime or a collapse of the housing market, or that were considered just too expensive or simply impractical have, in fact, worked out pretty well.

But many of these emergency interventions are set to disappear. The pandemic’s end now finally appears on the horizon, and millions are desperate to return to normal — to our schools and offices, our family visits and holiday celebrations. But when it comes to so many issues — from climate change to child care — a return to “normal” is aiming far too low.

The pandemic offered glimpses of what is possible. But will all this become a blip in history, or will it provide impetus for long-term change? The public has a genuine but brief window over the next few months to make America a fairer, more just and more humane place. If people recognize that, seize that and demand that, they could reshape this country for decades.

As I researched new policies deployed during the pandemic, I learned about successful innovations intelehealth spurred by social distancing, relaxed rules for addiction treatment that improved access to daily methadone and students who discovered virtual learning to be a better fit. It will take time to evaluate all of the many policy experiments, but three particular areas stuck out as where these lessons are among the clearest: housing, prison reform and internet access.

Through nationwide public health orders to stay at home to contain the virus, the pandemic forced lawmakers to strike better balances between the property rights of landlords and the safety of their tenants. While the efforts have been imperfect, with loopholes and uneven enforcement, never before has Congress thrown its weight behind protecting all residents from the threat of eviction. President Biden, too, recognizing which way the winds have blown, extended an eviction moratorium on his first day in office.

Take Maryland, for example. After years of inaction, lawmakers are now considering a sweeping housing package that includes a statewide right to counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction, a rental assistance fund and an increase to eviction filing fees for landlords. “The pandemic definitely changed the conversation,” Zafar Shah, a housing attorney at the Baltimore-based Public Justice Center, told me.

Yet for all this momentum, Mr. Shah fears that his state might fall too easily back on its old ways. Landlords are eager to collect back rent, and when lawmakers in Montgomery County, a Washington suburb, recently considered a proposal to require a “just cause” for evicting tenants, Mr. Shah said leaders “really struggled to wrap their heads around restraining rights of property owners.”

But the pandemic has also helped policymakers better grasp the value of giving homeless people their own independent living spaces. Last spring, cities across the country realized that crowded shelters could be hot zones for the virus and so quickly moved to rehouse thousands into newly vacant hotel rooms. Researchers at the University of Washington found that the shift from shelters to hotels improved feelings of stability among the homeless, boosted their health and well-being, and increased rates of transition to permanent housing.

States and cities financed these moves with emergency stimulus funding, but as that money dries up, policymakers should explore how they might purchase hotels or distressed property and turn them into long-term, supportive housing. They should look to Austin, Texas, where the City Council did just that, voting this winter to purchase two hotels for the homeless.

Diane Yentel, the president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, says she and her colleagues see “an extraordinary opportunity” with Mr. Biden and Congress to expand tenant rights, invest in public housing and finally authorize universal housing vouchers. Just a quarter of the people eligible for federal vouchers ever get one, with thousands languishing for years on waiting lists. “Our job now is to build off this broad recognition that housing is health care,” Ms. Yentel told me.

When it comes to America’s criminal justice system, pressure to revert to the previous status quo has already begun. While many prison systems suspended their unconscionable medical co-pays during the crisis, at least three states have already reinstated them. And in states that allowed for early release of prisoners, many who requested it were not freed.

Still, there are reasons for cautious hope. More Americans are now aware of the unsafe conditions in jails and the thousands there who are dying preventable deaths. “There are more than 60,000 people age 55 and up serving life sentences in prison, because of harsh sentences we handed out like candy,” said Amy Fettig, executive director of the Sentencing Project. “It’s incumbent on us to make sure that we show that these reforms like in New Jersey are noticed, that we can do these things safely.”

Criminal justice reformers head into the future with new, pandemic-era tools. In Virginia, advocates succeeded last fall in passing a bill to facilitate the early release of prisoners that had been shot down before Covid-19. A bill Delaware legislators are now considering would be modeled on New Jersey’s successful early release law from 2020.

Bryan Kennedy, a public defender in Fairfax County, Va., said it was remarkable to watch judges release people from jail early, some of whom he had seen sentenced just two months prior. “I hope I am able to look a judge in the face when this is over,” he said, “and say, in 2020 you wouldn’t have incarcerated this guy, so why are we doing this now?”

The pandemic made us all more reliant on the internet, but uneven access to it exacerbated inequalities. Over the past year activists pressured cable companies into reducing their rates so that students could afford to participate in virtual learning; city and state governments tried to deliver hundreds of thousands of tech devices to rural and low-income households. It was slow and messy, but there was finally the will to tackle a years-old problem with real focus.

But to address this in the long term, not only so that all students can study at home but also to make remote work viable for anyone and to encourage economic development in parts of the country in desperate need of investment, the answer is straightforward. Last year the House passed Representative Jim Clyburn’s bill for universal fiber broadband, which included an $80 billion investment to build a new high-speed infrastructure. “Fiber would be cheaper, long-lasting and revolutionary,” said Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. If the Senate passes the companion version this year, we’ll be much closer toward ending the digital divide once and for all.

“Covid shined a light that was necessary, and the wins and gains can give us momentum to shift the tide,” said Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, a prison reform group. But no one I spoke to believed positive change is guaranteed, and everyone warned of threats posed by diminishing political will. Sure, President Biden has pledged to “Build Back Better,” but it’s on Americans to hold him accountable to those words.

It is essential we get the word out on what has been accomplished as a result of this crisis and what our government still can do, and to remember what grass-roots activists understand deeply: Whether anything happens at all is largely up to us.

We’re still months from the end of this calamity, which has killed more than half a million Americans and severely disrupted the lives of countless more. But the time to push for permanent change is now. This is the moment to ensure that lessons from the pandemic become part of the policy conversation moving forward — to remember we can do more than conventional wisdom would have us believe.

Inside a Long, Messy Year of Reopening Schools

Originally published in The New Republic on March 8, 2021.

Last month in Chicago, after months of heated negotiations, the teachers union and Chicago Public Schools emerged with one of the most detailed school reopening agreements in the nation. Brad Marianno, an education policy professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who has been studying these agreements since last spring, called it the most comprehensive he’s seen, citing its inclusion of things like testing protocols, measures that might lead to reclosing schools, and vaccination commitments. Among other things, the union succeeded in negotiating accommodations for hundreds more members at higher risk of Covid-19 complications, or who serve as the primary caregiver for someone at higher risk, than the district had originally agreed to accommodate.

Stacy Davis Gates, the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said one of the most important components of the agreement was the so-called “school safety committees”—a demand the union put forward in December to hold leadership accountable to the health and safety promises it’s made. The school-based committees include up to four CTU members, the principal, the building engineer, and a “reasonable” number of other employees like janitors, lunchroom staff, and security guards. On a regular basis, they will flag to the principal any issues that arise and can hold the school liable if they go ignored. “That is the part of the agreement which provides us with some space to enforce the safety protocols, and it gives people who are working in the buildings power to push back and keep themselves safe,” Davis Gates told me.

Likewise, when I asked the Baltimore Teachers Union about what they’re most proud of from the fall negotiations, Corey Gaber, a vice president on the executive committee, called the “key provision” in its Memorandum of Understanding the one that holds Baltimore Public Schools accountable for everything in its Covid-19 health and safety guidelines. In effect, this means violations of those guidelines could be pursued as formal contract grievances. “The district does not have a strong track record of following through,” he said. “Given past precedent, there is not a level of trust, so for us, it’s all about getting things in writing.”

The remarks from Davis Gates and Gaber reflect something relatively basic to those familiar with the labor movement: When it comes to workplace safety, avoid taking an employer at their word. They also highlight something that, following dragged-out reopening fights, has been confusing to worn-out parents and community members, who are unclear why the pledges made by school districts have been insufficient to persuade educators to return more quickly: Isn’t this enough? Aren’t you letting perfect be the enemy of the good? These dynamics are compounded by a raft of shifting and not infrequently conflicting local, state, and federal public health guidelines—which can and are routinely used to accuse each side of “not following the science.” Even in February, following the release of the long-awaited Biden Centers for Disease Control and Prevention school reopening guidelines, experts quickly came out with contrasting opinions on the recommendations. Some felt the CDC shouldn’t have tied in-person learning to community transmission rates, despite evidence linking the two. Others thought the CDC should tie them but believed their metrics were too conservative. Others were frustrated the CDC stuck to recommending six feet of social distancing, and yet still others criticized the agency for downplaying the role of ventilation. (Two weeks after releasing its guidance, the CDC responded by releasing additional recommendations on school ventilation.)

“I was very disappointed in the school guidance that came out. I think it still has too much emphasis on ‘Covid theater’—like taking daily temperatures and cleaning down everything all the time,” said William Mills, a ventilation expert and engineering professor at Northern Illinois University. Mills, who has been advising his state on Covid-19, says governments have been resistant to embracing a more interdisciplinary approach to safety and have been too slow to accept what has been clear to industrial hygienists like him for a year.

“Many epidemiologists and infectious disease people do not get taught about the ‘hierarchy of controls,’” Mills said, referring to the standard way occupational safety experts analyze and address workplace hazards. While measures like personal protective equipment and social distancing are important, occupational safety experts put greater weight on so-called “engineering controls” like ventilation, which depend less on proper and sustained human compliance. Ensuring young children or teenagers consistently wear their masks and always remain properly distanced—in classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, and bathrooms—can be difficult, particularly if the school is crowded. “Engineered solutions remove the onus from individuals and their personal habits or attentiveness,” reads Covid-19 guidance from the American Industrial Hygiene Association. “Machines do not get tired, sloppy, or distracted.”

Bob Harrison, an occupational health specialist and clinical professor at the University of California-San Francisco, agrees what’s often missing from reopening conversations is the melding of different perspectives of safety. “While the CDC might determine that reopening schools will not lead to a surge in Covid-19 cases in the community, from a worker health perspective, whether or not I am significantly contributing to community health is not how I am coming to the issue,” he explained. In other words, in addition to fears of inadvertently getting their neighbors sick, school staff also just worry about their own health. Schools are workplaces, and since the passage of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970, employers have a general duty to ensure all employees “are free from recognized hazards” that cause or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.

A year into the pandemic, it helps to understand that school reopening battles have involved different experts carrying different assessments of risk. This has sometimes led advocates for faster reopenings to believe school employees are demanding “zero risk” on the job—an obviously untenable standard. Educators, in turn, see many academics and pediatricians making assured pronouncements about how public schools can be safe, with little reckoning of whether schools are safe and how to keep them that way. “Most doctors have never visited an inner-city school or been in a meatpacking plant,” Harrison said. “They probably have never taken much of an occupational history course, they don’t know what unions do, they don’t know about power dynamics in a workplace. So we’re speaking across a gap trying to understand each other, and it’s been a long and challenging road.”

While the science on schools and Covid-19 continues to evolve—at least two new studies were published in just the last two weeks—many health guidelines often lag reflecting the latest research. Or sometimes, as the debate over the CDC’s guidelines revealed, experts just have conflicting views on how to represent the latest science. This has led to lots of finger-pointing in negotiations, with educators often charged with making demands that exceed what some experts or some guidelines deem necessary.

San Francisco is instructive in how this played out. In December, a coalition of school district unions including teachers, administrators, technical engineers, grounds workers, secretaries, and cafeteria workers collectively put forward reopening proposals around health and safety, including on student testing and ventilation.

The school district then publicly blamed the unions for going beyond what the local health department recommended. But in the weeks since then, as union leaders like to note, localstate, and federal health guidelines were all updated and now embrace more of what the workers had been criticized for putting forward in December. And once elements like student testing were incorporated into San Francisco’s health department guidelines, the school district dropped its earlier objections, and they reached a tentative agreement that included testing about a week later.

“We’re not in a bubble,” said Rudy Gonzalez, a spokesperson for the San Francisco building trades. “The majority of school district unions are regional, and some work in multiple school districts, as well as various aspects of the private sector, so we have perspectives on what’s happening elsewhere and in other industries. This gives us an edge, and knowledge.”

Gonzalez pointed to the Stationary Engineers union as an example, which has members who work professionally to install ventilation units. These workers can seek out reputable industry advice, Gonzalez said, regardless of whether it’s yet been adopted by local regulatory bodies. In mid-December, the demands the San Francisco unions called for included MERV 13 filters with five air changes per hour in every classroom, and compliance with ventilation guidance promoted by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, or ASHRAE, in unoccupied buildings. The ASHRAE guidelines were later endorsed by California in its updated Covid-19 guidance released January 14.

“People seem hyperfocused when what we ask for is not directly in sync with state guidance,” said Gonzalez. “But if labor leaders only ever agreed to the minimum safety standards, well, there would be more dead workers on our rolls every year.”

Certainly, though, not all union demands are as straightforwardly reasonable as requesting to follow ASHRAE’s ventilation guidance, and sometimes the unions are operating on wrong or outdated information.

In December, for example, one proposal put forward by the San Francisco school unions was to require lids on all bathroom toilets, a proposal that was mocked as ridiculous and cited repeatedly by reporters in subsequent news stories. “We have to admit that twitter fear-mongers & teachers unions have hit rock bottom,” tweeted Vinay Prasad, a hematologist-oncologist and professor in the University of California-San Francisco epidemiology and biostats department. “Next, will unions demand we slaughter a goat before schools can re-open?”

Jill Tucker, an education reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle, said she felt the toilet lid demand was a clear example of showing “how much things were being asked beyond what is required.” The Chronicle learned of the demand through a public records request, and Tucker said it “demonstrates sort of the lack of information that the union was using in terms of what they were asking for. There is no evidence for that—zero. It’s an example of something they were asking for that had no foundation in science, in research, in expert opinion, so why was it in there?”

The union’s demand around toilet lids was based on research published over the summer. The study, which raised concerns about toilet flushes generating aerosol droplet clouds from the feces of an infected person, was covered at the time in The New York TimesCNN, and even the Chronicle. Some institutions did use the research to guide their reopening protocols, such as the University of Virginia, which installed toilet lids in all its bathrooms.

“The obsession with our ask around toilet lids felt like potty humor but not funny,” said Susan Solomon, the president of the San Francisco teachers union. “It was advice we had been given by some of our sanitation-worker members, based on research suggesting the virus could be transmitted through feces, so we put it in the proposal. It was never a top priority, and eventually we took it out because further evidence seemed to show it wasn’t necessary.”

In Chicago, one demand put forward by the teachers union was to close schools when community transmission rates exceeded 3 percent positivity—a threshold that had been used (and later abandoned) in New York City, and which, by late fall, most public health experts agreed was too conservative. When accused of ignoring experts or science, CTU’s attorney Thad Goodchild told the Chicago Sun-Times the union was basing its demand on other major cities, the threshold previously set by its local public health department, and metrics used by state health officials to require out-of-state travelers to quarantine upon arriving in Illinois. “What we’re proposing is not something we’re pulling from thin air,” Goodchild said. “Is the science evolving? Of course it is. We’re learning more about this every day. Is 3 percent the right number, or is it a different number? We want to bargain about that.”

Chicago Public Schools didn’t like the idea of agreeing to any metric that could require a return to virtual learning but eventually put forward the idea of closing schools if citywide case rates doubled every fewer than 18 days. The doubling metric, it argued, would better reveal how quickly the virus was spreading. But public health experts said relying on that one metric to guide school reopening decisions was flawed, too, because if you have high case rates but a slower doubling rate, that could still mean many infections within a school. “Following the science,” as usual, was less straightforward than it seemed.

In the end, the union and district settled on a relatively complex compromise, which involved using citywide positivity rates but with a much higher bar for closure than the union had originally wanted.

And then sometimes unions and districts just confront what are ultimately subjective judgments of risk, where qualified experts have different opinions. In Baltimore, for example, the teachers union demanded high-filtration masks—such as KN95s—to wear in schools, but the school district said experts it consulted believed cloth masks would be sufficient given other mitigation strategies Baltimore was deploying. In Colorado, by contrast, the state committed last summer to providing all teachers with KN95s, stating its priority was to offer school staff as much protection as possible. If you take at face value that those involved in the negotiations are working in good faith to protect themselves and others, these kinds of disagreements will inevitably arise.

Confusion in school reopening debates has been compounded by leaders in media, government, and even public health mischaracterizing existing research or sometimes conflating science with scientific opinion. In December and January, Chicago Public Schools put out resources falsely stating that researchers had found no link between open schools and community transmission rates. (James Gherardi, press secretary for Chicago Public Schools, defended the communications and said they’re “written in a way that is meant to be accessible to the general public, and includes links to studies and articles [for those] who want to learn more on their own.”)

“Look, the amount of information is dizzying,” said Gonzalez of the San Francisco building trades. “I say that as a labor leader, and as a parent of an elementary and middle schooler, and my 3-year-old who is soon to start preschool.”

Jeanne Noble, the director of the Covid response at the University of California-San Francisco medical center emergency department, has been one of the most outspoken physicians in the Bay Area advocating for reopening schools, including authoring a public letter in January that 30 of her colleagues signed. When the coalition of unions and San Francisco Unified School District reached an agreement on February 6 around health and safety standards, Noble criticized it in the media. “Their decisions are hurting our children,” she said. “It’s like the death of expertise, essentially.”

Noble marshals a lot of critical arguments about the risks to children from prolonged school closures—including heavy tolls on their mental and physical health. But she also downplays the role of school ventilation if universal masking is being enforced and places great stock in a handful of studies that some experts believe are less credible to assess the risks of reopening schools in the pandemic.

Noble and many proponents for reopening point to research in North CarolinaMississippiAtlanta, and rural Wisconsin that found evidence of very low transmission in schools when universal masking was in place. The studies were particularly encouraging, as the school transmission rates stayed low even in environments with high community spread, suggesting schools—with proper controls in place—could act as islands of safety for children and staff. “We no longer need to look at community-based data to make these decisions because we actually have stronger data from school-based observations,” Noble argued in a recent debate.

Yet with the exception of the Atlanta study, none of the research tested for asymptomatic infection, and it did not conduct follow-up testing with people quarantining from exposure. The CDC estimates upward of 50 percent of all Covid-19 infections are asymptomatic, with rates likely even higher for children. Two studies released in late February looked at how past Covid-19 research may have undercounted infection rates among children, and weekly random surveillance testing in the U.K. has shown kids with higher infection rates than most adults.

The Wisconsin researchers acknowledged they couldn’t rule out asymptomatic spread, and another CDC study released around the same time found 5,700 Covid-19 cases were linked to outbreaks in Wisconsin K–12 schools and childcare facilities last fall.

Theresa Chapple, an epidemiologist who focuses on child and maternal health, says the lack of testing of those in quarantine or those without symptoms were major limitations for her. “They were taking the ‘don’t test and let’s see’ approach, and that’s not helpful,” she said. “We already know if you don’t test you’re not going to find the virus.”

Noble says we should be able to trust what we’re seeing on the ground, and the fact that many schools have been open for so long should dispel the notion that more schools can’t be open safely. She often points to Marin County in California, which has a public dashboard reporting just 11 suspected cases of in-school transmission since schools opened in September.

Ken Lippi, an assistant superintendent for Marin County’s education department confirmed that asymptomatic testing of students is not commonly done. But he attributes their low reported case rates to strong planning. “I don’t believe public health officials think we’ve missed any cases at all,” he told me.

A new CDC study released in late February on elementary schools in Cobb County, Georgia, suggests those who worry past research may have missed asymptomatic spread have a point. Unlike earlier research, this study offered free testing between days five and 10 to any student quarantining from exposure and then tested household contacts of anyone who tested positive from that group. Twenty-six percent of household members living with infected students also had the virus.

“This gives us a clearer idea of how schools can contribute to community spread that none of the earlier studies have given us before,” said Chapple. “We now have concrete evidence that it is biologically plausible, and when you employ appropriate methods you detect it.”

One takeaway for Chapple was that even in schools that have mitigation policies like masking and social distancing, ventilation matters because, as industrial hygienists have warned, strategies that depend on perfect human compliance often fail. In the Cobb County study, while the schools had policies of three feet of physical distancing and mandated masking, in practice those approaches weren’t always followed. Another CDC survey released in February found that among students attending in-person school in October, just 65 percent said their peers wore masks “all the time” in classrooms, hallways, and stairwells, and even fewer said their peers wore masks on buses, in restrooms, and when not eating in the cafeteria.

Mills, the ventilation expert, said one of his frustrations has been when some doctors and researchers say we still lack good evidence to show that upgraded ventilation will work to prevent the virus’s spread. “Where some experts say they see no evidence, industrial hygienists understand that these aerosols work no differently from others,” Mills said. “In my field, we understand that every time you get a new hazard there’s a roadmap you can follow. It’s not so different from SARS. This isn’t really new science for us.”

Harrison, the occupational medicine doctor, thinks one reason ventilation and universal testing often get ignored or dismissed is because they can just be tough for some schools to afford or implement. He supports both—and says from a worker health perspective, testing can be a particularly important element to monitor occupational risk. “A colleague of mine who worked for a long time on Capitol Hill on federal policy once told me, ‘Look, Bob, if a problem gets so big that nobody knows what to do, then we just eliminate the issue from consideration, and therefore it no longer becomes a problem,” Harrison said. “And I think that’s what happens with testing.”

A melding of different safety perspectives, as Harrison suggests, could help resolve some of the remaining sticking points in the months-long quest to reopen schools.

While the CDC has said vaccination is not a prerequisite to resuming in-person learning, the CDC’s advisory committee on vaccinations did recommend prioritizing teachers for the vaccine, and multiple studies have suggested that educators working in person face higher risk of infection. The new CDC study on Cobb County also emphasized the importance of vaccinating teachers to reduce in-school spread.

While the Chicago Teachers Union dropped its earlier demand to have all educators fully vaccinated before returning to school, Chicago Public Schools did agree at the eleventh hour to increase the number of doses prioritized for teachers, which helped the district and union finally reach an agreement. In San Francisco, the agreement with the union also hinges on vaccinating staff if transmission levels in the community remain high.

A spokesperson for D.C. Public Schools, Liz Bartolomeo, said the district is very proud to have already vaccinated 2,800 teachers to help facilitate in-person learning. Educators in D.C. have been prioritized for doses since late January.

Even as families are growing more concerned about the academic toll on children from missing school, a majority of adults across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines say that currently closed schools should wait to reopen until all teachers who want the vaccine have received it, according to a Pew survey released in late February. The U.S. House of Representatives recently approved a stimulus package that would dedicate an additional $130 billion for K–12 schools, and Biden just came out more forcefully calling for teacher vaccinations.

Baltimore students in kindergarten through second grade started returning to classrooms on March 1, with more grades set to return later this month. In February, Baltimore Public Schools announced it would finally begin weekly asymptomatic testing for students and staff, something the district had long resisted. Gaber of the Baltimore Teachers Union says that with lower community transmission rates, with commitments around ventilation and testing, and since most educators have by now gotten at least their first vaccine dose, members are feeling relatively comfortable about going back.

“It’s not perfect,” he said. “But it’s way better than it was.”

Amazon VP Abruptly Resigns from Board of Liberal Legal Organization

Originally published in The Intercept on February 27, 2021.

ANDREW DEVORE, an Amazon vice president and associate legal counsel who manages the company’s “labor and employment” issues, has resigned from the board of the American Constitution Society. His resignation represents a sharp turnaround from a few months ago, when the liberal legal organization voted to renew DeVore for a second three-year term.

ACS, which was founded in 2001 to help create a pipeline of liberal judges and act as a counter to the conservative Federalist Society, faced growing pressure throughout 2020 to cut ties with DeVore and condemn Amazon for its anti-union practices. In the spring, DeVore’s boss, Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky, had urged colleagues to tell reporters that, among other things, a fired worker who protested the lack of Covid-19 safety protections in a Staten Island warehouse was “not smart or articulate.”

In response, a number of left-leaning groups, including attorneys and law students affiliated with ACS, sent a letter to ACS’s president, Russ Feingold, and the ACS board of directors protesting DeVore’s leadership role and calling for his immediate resignation. But the organization did not call for his resignation and six months later voted to extend his leadership position. At the time, ACS told The Intercept that DeVore, who had served on the board since 2017, was an engaged board member and that they saw him as helping to bring “a diversity of experiences” to the organization.

In a letter sent to New York University ACS student leaders on Friday, Feingold confirmed that DeVore had resigned. “Andrew is a principled person, his Board participation was exemplary, and we benefited greatly from his service,” Feingold wrote. “We are grateful for his dedication to the organization.”

ACS did not return a request for comment, but their website has already been updated to no longer list DeVore as part of the leadership.

Feingold’s letter did not say why DeVore had resigned. But since December, when ACS publicly reaffirmed its support for the Amazon executive, a major unionization campaign at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, has picked up national attention. The company has been fighting the union effort aggressively, including hiring a $3,200-per-day consultant to dissuade the some 5,800 workers there from voting for a union.

ACS has resisted pressure from its membership to speak more forcefully about Amazon’s labor practices for most of the coronavirus pandemic. In April, amid public backlash to Amazon’s warehouse conditions, ACS released a statement reiterating its support for workers’ rights but did not specifically mention Amazon by name. Amazon is listed as a 2020 corporate sponsor on ACS’s website, though how much the company has donated to the nonprofit organization is unknown.

“I think it was very concerning that ACS as a progressive organization won’t make a statement that specifically calls out Amazon and its bad track record,” Hooman Hedayati, a member of the Washington, D.C., ACS chapter board told The Intercept in December. “It makes me question to what degree they’d really be willing to speak up in support of the labor movement.”

In late January, a virtual panel hosted by ACS chapters at Harvard, New York University, and Yale was titled “Corporate Influence in Progressive Legal Spaces: Why Is an Amazon Lawyer on the American Constitution Society’s Board of Directors?” Among other legal activists, the event featured former Amazon worker Christian Smalls, who was fired last March for protesting warehouse conditions.

Eight days after the virtual panel, ACS released its first statement directed at Amazon. “The American Constitution Society encourages all employers, including the Amazon Corporation, to respect the right of workers to collectively bargain and to follow the law in remaining neutral as to their employees’ decision to unionize or not,” Feingold wrote in the statement. “The upcoming unionization election at an Amazon plant in Alabama is scheduled to occur on February 8, and there have been concerning news reports outlining anti-organizing actions by the company. We are also disturbed by first-hand accounts of mistreatment of Amazon workers, particularly in the midst of the pandemic.”

Voting for the Bessemer warehouse union began February 8 and will continue through March 29. It is the first union election for the company in the United States since about two dozen Delaware warehouse workers rejected forming a union in 2014.

Connecticut Lawmakers Want to Try Again To Make Prison Phone Calls Completely Free

Originally published in The Intercept on February 22, 2021.

CONNECTICUT LAWMAKERS ARE gearing up for their second attempt at passing a bill that would make prison phone and video calls free for incarcerated people and their loved ones.

A similar bill, introduced by state Rep. Josh Elliott, a progressive elected in 2016, and drafted by Worth Rises, a national nonprofit focused on ending the influence of commercial interests in the criminal justice system, advanced in 2019 and passed out of the state’s House Judiciary Committee. But around the same time, Securus Technologies, the national prison telecommunications corporation that Connecticut has contracted with since 2012, hired two lobbyists on a $40,000 retainer to fight the bill. Under direction from its parent company, Platinum Equity, Securus eventually backed off, but with two weeks left in the session and stonewalling from the state’s Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont, it was too late.

Since that battle, Connecticut now boasts a new notorious title: It is now the most expensive state in the country for prison phone calls, after Arkansas renegotiated its rates. A 15-minute phone call between an incarcerated person in Connecticut and a family member costs nearly $5, at $0.21-$0.325 per minute. Rhode Island, its next-door neighbor for example, charges $0.029 per minute.

Advocates are feeling optimistic they have a better shot this time around and can make Connecticut the first state in the nation to eliminate the charges.

“There are very specific things that held up this bill in the past,” said Elliott, pointing to Securus’s lobbying in 2019, which required advocates to scramble at the end of the session. “That meant that we were chasing our tail a bit until Securus formally and publicly backed out of lobbying against our bill, recognizing what it looks like to be a contractor with the state while lobbying for their interests,” he said.

Jade Trombetta, a spokesperson for Securus, confirmed with The Intercept that they will not be lobbying on the bill this year and added that they’ve been working with Connecticut to offer different funding models, “including options to reduce rates and commissions and even rates that do not include commissions.”

Also this year, advocates have a powerful state senate sponsor in President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, who has introduced a version of the bill. “Having Looney be an introducer is a major step forward,” said Elliott.

In a February press briefing, Looney pointed to the fact that Connecticut is a state that uses commissions from its prison phone calls as a way to subsidize other parts of its corrections system. “That is really not an appropriate use,” he said.

Connecticut families spend over $14 million per year to talk to their loved ones behind bars, and under the negotiated contract, the state takes $7.7 million in kickbacks, with the rest going to Securus. In 2019, a spokesperson for the state’s judicial branch testified that losing prison phone call commission fees would mean the state would have to eliminate adult probation office positions.

Looney said he was supporting the legislation as a racial and economic justice priority. One study found more than one in three survey participants went into debt to cover phone and visitation costs, and that the costs landed disproportionately on Black and Latino women.

Decades of research have shown that keeping in touch with loved ones while incarcerated significantly improves an individual’s chance for successful reentry when they are released. “To sustain that contact becomes really costly every month, and the prisons tend to be located in remote, rural areas of the state,” said Looney. “Most prisoners come from the urban areas, distance to travel is hard and very expensive. … Many do not even have transportation.”

Lamont, who grew his personal fortune through the telecommunications industry, released his budget earlier this month and proposed allocating just $1 million to reduce the cost of prison phone calls. The Connecticut Connecting Families coalition blasted the governor for “backtracking,” noting that $1 million is just 20 percent of what Lamont had committed to in an address last year, before the pandemic.

Lamont’s office did not return multiple requests for comment on his budget proposal, or on whether the governor would support the phone justice legislation this year.

While it’s not yet clear where the money would come from to make up for the millions that Connecticut currently relies on in call commissions, Kevin Coughlin, a spokesperson for Looney, told The Intercept that those budgetary considerations will be hashed out over the next two months or so in the legislative session.

Advocates noted that Lamont recently announced the state will be closing three prisons in the coming months, to “right-size” Connecticut’s correctional system. The first one announced, Northern Correctional Institution, will offer millions in savings. Connecticut is also projecting a $70 million budget surplus this year, despite the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

THE PANDEMIC HAS shined new light on the exorbitant rates that prison-phone corporations charge for phone and video calls, as in-person visitation was largely impossible over the last year.

On the federal level, in the first stimulus package authorized by Congress, lawmakers included language to make all phone calls free from federal facilities throughout the pandemic. Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, said while they have worked to build allies in Congress, they were still surprised to see that measure included in the CARES Act.

In late March, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., also introduced a bill to expand the FCC’s authority to regulate in-state prison phone calls (where most prison phone calls occur) and bar state and local governments from collecting commissions from the calls. It was included in the HEROES Act that passed the House in May, and Tylek called it “the most significant federal legislative vote on prison phone justice in history.”

There was momentum to push companion legislation through the Senate too, with 17 Democratic Senators urging it as a priority, led by Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tammy Duckworth. But the real gatekeeper in the Senate was Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, chair of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, and he would not commit to supporting the bill.

Since Democrats took control of the Senate in January, Wicker is no longer chair, and Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington is now leading the committee. Cantwell was not one of the 17 Democrats to sign the letter last year urging the passage of the phone justice bill, and her office did not return multiple requests for comment.

This past summer, in another development that surprised longtime advocates, then-FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican, announced a new proposed rule for lowering the rates of interstate prison calls and for capping rates of international prison calls for the first time. Pai also urged state utility commissioners to take action on intrastate calls, which he rightly noted disproportionately impacts Black Americans.

With the election of Joe Biden, Pai is now gone, but the new Acting FCC Chair, Jessica Rosenworcel, has long supported efforts to address the high cost of prison communications. Earlier this year, in response to Pai’s proposed rule, Rosenworcel said the FCC “should be embarrassed” that it has taken them so long to address this problem.

An FCC spokesperson told The Intercept that “addressing the high costs of phone service for the incarcerated and their families is a priority for the Acting Chairwoman. She hopes to move forward with the FCC’s effort to curb these rates in the near future.”

Mike Gwin, a spokesperson for the Biden administration, did not have comment on the FCC specifically, but he pointed to Biden’s campaign pledge to support the passage of Duckworth’s legislation that would expand the FCC’s authority to regulate prison phone calls. His campaign website promised to “crack down on the practice of private companies charging incarcerated individuals and their families outrageously high fees to make calls.”

Exit Interview: How the COVID Tracking Project Stepped Up When The Trump Administration Didn’t

Originally published in GQ on February 19, 2021.

It perhaps doesn’t say great things about the U.S. government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic that a plucky volunteer organization has grown into one of the most trusted data sources on COVID-19 in the U.S. But that’s the reality: The COVID Tracking Project, an improvised effort supported the Atlantic, was founded in the earliest days of the pandemic, after four journalists and data scientists realized there wan’t a good centralized source for essential stats like the number of tests administered and patients currently in the hospital with the virus. 

So every day for the last eleven months the project coordinated an effort of mostly volunteers to manually gather the latest public health data from all 50 states, Washington D.C., and five territories. They then worked to translate that information for the public—producing daily charts and analysis on the scale of the pandemic, which have been cited everywhere from local broadcasters to executive branch briefings. These daily updates on the number of tests, cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been invaluable journalists and public health officials, and for millions of people, become one of the few steady fixtures of this last year.

Earlier this month the group announced it would be ending its daily data compilation work on March 7, the one-year anniversary of it’s founding. Ahead of their last day, GQ spoke with two of the group’s co-founders, Alexis Madrigal and Erin Kissane, about the terrifying early days of the pandemic, why the government wasn’t doing this work, and their decision to shut down.

GQ: Can you both tell me about how this started?

Alexis Madrigal: I was talking with Robinson Meyer, another staff writer at The Atlantic, a lot in February about how we were worried about COVID. Rob realized that the number of people being tested in the U.S. was not actually known. He called me up one day and he was like, “Imagine we’re reporters on the Army Corps of Engineers beat, five days before Hurricane Katrina. Like what the fuck are we doing here? We should do something.”

We decided to try and count and compile the number of people who had been tested by calling all the states. We came up with a count of less than 2,000—when the Trump administration had been talking about having deployed millions of tests. Which meant the number of cases being reported was also an enormous undercount.

We published our first article [From March 6, Exclusive: The Strongest Evidence Yet That America Is Botching Coronavirus Testing] and after that I got an email from Jeff Hammerbacher, a college friend of mine who went on to build data systems at Facebook and then became a bioinformatics guy. He asked me if I had used his spreadsheet to write our article. I was like, “What spreadsheet?”  He linked us to it, and that Google spreadsheet became the basis of what we do at COVID Tracking Project.

Erin had a lot of experience in managing distributed news projects, she came on as a fourth founder, we made this cattle call for volunteers, and that was it. Now it’s 340 days later and we’re still doing it.

Erin Kissane: Rob and I had been doing late night anxiety texts in February about how we just didn’t have eyes on the virus in the United States. As soon as I saw that Rob and Alexis had done this work, I got in touch.

You both grasped that this would be a bigger deal earlier than most Americans, and earlier than most journalists.

EK: There were so many concerns about not alarming people and not overreacting. But it happens that I’m just a person interested in pandemics and I also have an autoimmune condition, so I’m particularly concerned about respiratory viruses. I also read a lot of news out of China. It just seemed so bad and U.S. coverage in January and into February was so much about how it’s probably not going to come here, but it felt like there was very little attention on how bad it actually was in Wuhan.

And so your project quickly became the best place for testing data. Correct me if I’m wrong, but as I understand it, at some point the CDC did start collecting a lot of similar data, but failed to package it in a way that the public could easily digest. At what point did that start happening?

AM: The short answer is I think it was roughly 100 days before the CDC released a testing dataset. It wasn’t until much, much later, in the fall, that the CDC put out a dataset on current hospitalizations.

But there’s two things, there’s data availability—is anything there? And then there’s data quality—are there reasons to suspect the data is not complete? And what we found with the CDC’s testing data is that there were major problems. Each federal data pipeline matches up differently with the stitched-together data from the 56 jurisdictions, and our job is to figure that out. That’s a lot of what our work became.

EK: May 9 is when the CDC began posting testing data, cases, and deaths all together in their COVID tracker. We did a pretty in-depth research report on that, and found the testing data was really quite dramatically off for a lot of states. In some cases, it was much higher than what states reported, in some cases much lower. So back in May we felt we couldn’t stop our project. When the federal hospitalization data came out, we did a lot of work to try to explain to our data users that their data was actually quite good.

We didn’t try to build a dashboard that was easy to use. We sort of backed ourselves into providing that. At first it was just journalists and data nerds, but eventually we brought on people with more science communication expertise. I think something we’re feeling very heartened and encouraged by is that some combination of the CDC and HHS [the Department of Health and Human Services] now seem quite committed to doing science communication about the details of this pandemic—with regular briefings and all those things.

How would you say your tracker differs from other COVID trackers, like the one hosted by Johns Hopkins or the New York Times?

EK: The metrics we track are different, and we also work at the state level, and some of the other trackers work at the county level. The other trackers that I’m aware of are primarily scrapers, and our work is entirely manual. We have humans who go in and collect the numbers, more humans who check the numbers and double check them. The benefit of continuing to work this way, instead of moving to automation, has been that we are very, very close to tiny definitional changes in the data. We can dig through PDFs, and we can spot tiny blips in ways that a scraper might miss. It’s a very labor-intensive way of doing work, but it’s really about keeping the institutional knowledge about what exactly each number means.

AM: Unlike most of the others, we weren’t trying to build a standalone-destination tracker. Our role was quite different. We were building a node that fed information to a lot of those other trackers, as well as people who were extremely interested in some of the in-depth texture of Covid statistics. We gave top-lines, but that was not the primary goal of the project.

How many people would you say were involved with the project? And how did it break down between paid staff and volunteers?

AM: I think about 900 people have flowed through in some way, and about 400 have done a shift and entered data. So 400 Americans have really contributed to this dataset for their fellow folks. On an average week, I think it’s about 250-300 active people, and on a given data shift, there’s only so many slots, so it’s probably like 30 people on a given shift.

EK: On a given day we have the new folks, the checkers, the more experienced folks, the double checkers, and then the shift leads.

AM: Then there’s reporter folks who go out to the states, data infrastructure people, data quality people, and then there’s been about 30 paid staffers for the last few months.

So your project is winding down. While I know you didn’t launch this with the intention to run it forever, you all have created a trusted institution at a time when some of our other institutions have come to be seen as less trustworthy. So why are you ending next month, as opposed to the summer or once we get through the pandemic?

EK: We wanted to wind down as soon as we thought the federal government was doing a good enough job that we could hand it off. That sounds arrogant to say, but let’s be clear, there were deficits. Our orientation has been from the beginning that we would only go as long as we had to. And the reason for that is that we really want people to be looking at, working with, banging on, and using the federal data.

We don’t want to be a barrier between full attention on the federal data. That was really an ethical concern for us: We think it’s properly the role of the federal government. Our data can only get so good, because we’re at the wrong end of the pipeline: We can only look at what’s on public dashboards, and there’s a lot of work on those metrics that happens before they get to the dashboards. The federal government can see things we can’t see, they can do things we can’t do.

AM: We’ve had tons of interactions with states and the federal government to know that people have been making really, really good faith efforts to collect data. It’s easy to say now that the government does not appear to be cooking the books—and has not appeared to be cooking the books—but that was not at all clear through most of 2020.

EK: This has all been very ad hoc, and the people doing this work, whether they’re getting paid or not, they’re doing it because they need to be doing the work for themselves, for their country. They see it as their responsibility but it’s not a sustainable situation. We haven’t ever paid our people what they’re worth. This work should not be done by volunteers.

A real turning point for us was when we decided not to collect vaccine data. That was a strategic and tactical decision, because we wanted to put attention and pressure on the feds to track it.

I understand you’ve given some recommendations to the Biden transition team. Can you say more about that, and why you feel better about passing the torch?

AM: The number one thing is that the people we have been pressuring at HHS to deliver have really been delivering. When we first made contact with people there, they said, “We’d really like to make things more open and transparent.” And we said, “Great, let’s see that.” And week after week we continue to get more and more releases, and information.

EK: One of the things that has happened over the course of this project is that we’ve developed relationships with most of the states, with people in their public health departments, who have really helped us understand what they could and couldn’t do. And something that we’re trying to do now, as we make these recommendations to the federal government, is to include those perspectives and things that we learned about what is actually possible for states, where there are resource problems, tech system problems. We hope these can be seeds for the federal government to do the deep, difficult long-term work of rebuilding the country’s public health infrastructure, which is what it’ll take to do a really good job on the data. That’s a very long project that needs to be done, and it hopefully can be nudged along by the pressure around COVID.

What needs to happen to be better able to track things in the future?

AM: The short answer is that it’s nuts to run a country, from a public health perspective, in the way that we do. Each governor and state control an enormous amount of information. The federal government can request things, even mandate it, but they’re not providing the systems that go along with those mandates. It’s not so much tech capacity, narrowly construed. It’s more like state capacity, and within that there are counties with their own capacity issues.

If we really want to go about fixing this in a deep, systemic way, you build up that capacity from the county level on up. But that does require federal coordination.

EK: Right, the federal government can compel uniform reporting. There are states that can refuse but the feds do have a lot more authority than an outside organization like us to get clean, standardized data. And we’ve seen, like with the federal hospitalization data, that they can do this. We just think they need to better provide resources to support state collection of that data, to help build capacity. I’m sure you’ve seen the reporting about how many people have quit their local public health departments this year all over the country because they’re so burnt out.

When you look back on the project, what were some interesting or particularly meaningful ways you saw the work impact the world?

AM: All of it, but the bottom up way the project hit people is what made us feel particularly good. Like when we’d hear from individual people that their family members had changed their decisions because they were able to see through our data that this was real and they should take it seriously. Also things we heard from the actual people doing heroic work on the frontlines in healthcare.

The things that were oftentimes dispiriting was seeing how much use the data was getting in governments at all levels. While that should maybe occasionally feel gratifying, it actually felt destabilizing because it made us realize the state of play in the world.

EK: We wanted to help media organizations do accountability reporting, and we did see huge pickups from media organizations, including tons and tons of broadcast stations. That was really meaningful for us, and it was also important to show media organizations that they could trust the data coming from states. We’ve seen very little malfeasance from states. We’ve seen mistakes. We’ve seen big backlogs that made things look weird. But really for the most part we’ve done the work of saying, “Look, you can trust this information.”

But I think also seeing our data cited by two different administrations has been unsettling. The hardest thing on this entire project for me has been when we learned the federal government didn’t have something that we thought they were just sitting on.

Interview has been edited and condensed.