2019
August
06
Tuesday
David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

In today’s edition, our five handpicked stories explore GOP solutions (to mass shootings), justice (rape in Sierra Leone), relationships (U.S.-China, human-sea gull), and innovation (jet-engine hoverboard).

But first, let’s look at Toni Morrison’s legacy. The first African American woman to win a Nobel Prize in literature (1993) died Monday. Her novels lyrically and unflinchingly plumbed slavery, sisterhood, racism, justice, sexual abuse, rage, guilt, and liberty. She’s “a national treasure ... ,” wrote former President Barack Obama today, “a challenge to our conscience and a call to greater empathy.”

She leaves an indelible mark on America and a generation of black writers. I asked Monitor culture critic Candace McDuffie what Ms. Morrison means to her. 

“Toni Morrison made me feel valued and seen in a genre where we are usually neglected,” writes Candace in an email. “In white American literature, black women are either completely ignored or reduced to racist tropes. We are not docile Mammys, nor are we hypersexual Jezebels or inexplicably angry Sapphires. We are multidimensional and beautiful beings whose experiences run deep. Morrison managed to embody our complexities through works that showcased our humanity and wholeness.”

Candace respects that Ms. Morrison “never jeopardized her artistic integrity. ... Topics like slavery and racism and colorism and black feminism dominated her works and were powerful and revelatory because Morrison prioritized black authenticity over white comfort. And because of this, she will always be one of the most important writers of our time.”

Ms. Morrison will be missed. But her unique expression of dignity, defiance, and cultural honesty endures. As Mr. Obama wrote, “time is no match” for her works.

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1. After mass shootings, Republicans wrestle with politics of race

Our reporters look at how Republicans are shifting their approach to dealing with the problem of mass shootings motivated by hate.

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As the nation grapples with the aftermath of two horrific mass shootings – one allegedly committed by an avowed white supremacist – the Republican Party has been engaging in a kind of soul-searching of its own.  

Many leading Republican politicians, including several from states with large Latino populations, have made a point of calling out “white supremacy” by name and urging others in their party to take an unequivocal stance.

Other top Republicans haven’t joined the chorus, however, instead blaming mental illness and video games for the actions of mass shooters. And while some in the party see an urgent need to take a strong moral stand, others see a political trap – since many Democrats are arguing that it is hypocritical for any Republican to denounce white supremacy unless he or she also denounces President Donald Trump.

Still, the shift in thought is significant, observers say. Fighting white supremacy will require leaders from both sides of the aisle to consistently and specifically condemn it wherever it emerges, says Cynthia Miller-Idriss, an American University professor who studies far-right youth extremism. 

“I do think this is a genuine shift happening,” Ms. Miller-Idriss says. “We’re seeing a much stronger condemnation now than we have in the past.”

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1. After mass shootings, Republicans wrestle with politics of race

As the nation grapples with the aftermath of two horrific mass shootings – one allegedly committed by an avowed white supremacist – the Republican Party has been engaging in a kind of soul-searching of its own.  

Many leading Republican politicians, including several from states with large Latino populations, have made a point of calling out “white supremacy” by name and urging others in their party to take an unequivocal stance.

On Sunday, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the son of a Cuban immigrant, called the shooting “a heinous act of terrorism and white supremacy.” Florida Sen. Rick Scott called white nationalism “a cancer in our country.” Freshman Rep. Dan Crenshaw, also from Texas, tweeted that race-based violence “is one of the most disgusting forms of evil that exists.”

President Donald Trump, who has faced considerable criticism for years of rhetoric that detractors see as race-baiting, declared Monday in a televised address, “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy.”

Other top Republicans haven’t joined the chorus, however, instead blaming mental illness and video games for the actions of mass shooters. And while some in the party see an urgent need to take a strong moral stand, others see a political trap – since many Democrats are arguing that it is hypocritical, if not flat-out impossible, for any Republican to denounce white supremacy unless he or she also denounces Mr. Trump.

Still, the shift in thought is significant, observers say. Fighting white supremacy will require leaders from both sides of the aisle to consistently and specifically condemn it wherever it emerges, says Cynthia Miller-Idriss, an American University professor who studies far-right youth extremism. 

“I do think this is a genuine shift happening,” Ms. Miller-Idriss says. “We’re seeing a much stronger condemnation now than we have in the past.”

Some Republican strategists, aware of the GOP’s image problem on matters of race, want to see a bolder reckoning on rhetoric. 

“For the party’s future, it’s important we be clear about what we stand for and what we’re not willing to tolerate,” says Texas-based Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak. When it comes to white nationalism, Republican leaders need to “send a message that everyone in the country opposes those views,” he says, “and to do that explicitly.”

In Pennsylvania, a crucial battleground state in the 2020 presidential race, the GOP is facing a challenge attracting a diversity of new members. In the view of one party leader, state GOP committee member Joseph DiSarro, “we may have to do some reevaluation of the rather careless rhetoric that’s going on.”  

But any suggestion that the burden lies solely at Mr. Trump’s feet is wrong, adds Mr. DiSarro, a political science professor at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania.  

Loren Elliott/Reuters
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas addresses members of the media during a Border Safety Initiative event in Mission, Texas, July 1, 2019. On Sunday, Senator Cruz, the son of a Cuban immigrant, called Saturday’s shooting in El Paso, Texas, a “heinous act of terrorism and white supremacy.”

Racism and white supremacy “existed long before Trump became president,” he says. “This notion that somehow the president is the cause of all evil is absurd.” 

Yet critics see a more insidious effect from Mr. Trump’s words, echoes of which appeared in an online manifesto posted moments before a gunman in El Paso, Texas, killed 22 people and injured dozens more at a Walmart last Saturday. The manifesto spoke of “defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.”

Studies show that inflammatory language, especially online, can encourage violent behavior. To the president’s detractors, his pattern of stoking racial animosity makes any statement condemning white supremacy now ring hollow. The same goes for statements by GOP leaders who nevertheless continue to support Mr. Trump.   

“He’s not tolerating racism, he’s promoting racism. He’s not tolerating violence, he’s inciting racism and violence in this country,” said former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democratic presidential candidate who is from El Paso.  

That’s not to say Republicans don’t mean it when they denounce white supremacy. Indeed, some are now making powerful arguments about why, and how, conservatives need to wage war against white nationalist ideology.

“It’s time to be as wide awake about the dangers of online racist radicalization as we are about online jihadist inspiration,” conservative writer David French exhorted in the National Review. 

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, the grandson of former President George H.W. Bush, published an op-ed in The Atlantic calling on his fellow conservatives to confront the issue head-on. “Terrorism by white supremacists is indeed a real and present danger,” he writes. “The only question is: What are we going to do about it?” 

The problem, critics say, is that the party, led by Mr. Trump, has a lot to make up for – more than can be fixed by a single speech or tweeted condemnations after a tragedy. Throughout his term, they argue, the president has used fear and racial animus to motivate his base of voters. Years before Mr. Trump became president, he led the charge in questioning then-President Barack Obama’s American citizenship. On the day he announced his 2016 presidential campaign, he called Mexican immigrants drug dealers and rapists.  

In 2017, after white nationalists clashed with counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, Mr. Trump drew flak for saying there was “blame on both sides.” In May, he smirked at a Florida rally when a supporter shouted that the way to deal with unauthorized immigrants was to shoot them, and last month he created a firestorm after tweeting that four liberal Democratic congresswomen of color – all critics of his – needed to “go back” to where they came from. 

Ahead of the 2018 midterms, Mr. Trump had represented the arrival of a caravan of migrants at the southern border as an “invasion.” The gunman who opened fire at a synagogue in Pittsburgh last October was found to have accused a Jewish organization that aided Central American migrants of bringing in “invaders that kill our people.” 

“What President Trump has done, and candidate Trump did, is look for the cultural fissures, the places where there was room to tear us apart,” says Sarah Longwell, publisher of The Bulwark, a conservative news site founded by Republican critics of Mr. Trump. “He inserts a jackhammer into that division and he cranks it open further all the time.”

Still, many in the party reject the premise that Mr. Trump is a racist or that he’s responsible for the rise of white nationalism in the country. Pushing to reform the nation’s asylum laws or strengthen its borders doesn’t make a person a white supremacist, Mr. Mackowiak points out. And while the president should have to answer for some of his language – “I criticized him sharply after Charlottesville,” Mr. Mackowiak says – Democrats can be just as aggressive in riling up their base.

Indeed, many of the 2020 Democratic candidates have sharply ramped up their own rhetoric in recent days, with several explicitly tying Mr. Trump to the El Paso shooting. To conservatives, this shows that liberals are willing to use accusations of white supremacy as a political weapon.  

“Democrats always tend to overreach,” Ms. Longwell says. “It then gives people grounds to dismiss their complaint because they are taking it to an extreme that is too far.”

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2. For Northwest fishermen, latest catch is trade-war trouble

A rocky relationship between Washington and Beijing means salmon fishermen in the Northwest make less money. Our reporter looks at their response. 

David
Alex Pajunas/The Daily Astorian/AP/FILE
Commercial fisherman Richie Williams unloads spring salmon from his boat on the docks at the Astoria Yacht Club in Astoria, Oregon, in 2010. Fishermen in the Pacific Northwest have been hit hard by the U.S.-China trade war.

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Thirty-five years ago, Sven Stroosma was a University of Washington student looking for a summer job. He wound up salmon fishing – and fell in love with the business.

Today, Mr. Stroosma and his deckhands – two sons, a nephew, and a friend – fish the blue waters of the Gulf of Alaska, using a net that hangs 100 feet deep. It’s dangerous and demanding work. Amid a U.S.-China trade war, which includes Chinese tariffs on Alaskan seafood, it’s tough financially, too. Last year, Mr. Stroosma says, chum salmon brought in 90 cents per pound. Now, it’s only 50. 

Washington state is the most trade-dependent state in the country, with about 40% of all jobs linked to international commerce; Alaska and Oregon are also among the most affected states. Meanwhile, the trade war seems to have no end in sight. President Donald Trump announced a 10% tariff on another $300 billion of Chinese imports last week. 

So what do you do when you’re caught in the middle? Pacific Northwest lawmakers have lobbied the administration to provide relief for the fishing industry, as it has for farmers. Mr. Stroosma, for one, has mixed feelings about any government relief.

“Fishermen – probably very similarly to farmers – we are very independent,” he says. 

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For Northwest fishermen, latest catch is trade-war trouble

As President Donald Trump announced new tariffs on China last week in a trade war with no end in sight, American salmon fisherman Sven Stroosma set his sights on the blue waters of the Gulf of Alaska, piloting his boat Voyager in search of a big salmon catch.

Alaskan salmon are running, and Pacific Northwest fishermen like Mr. Stroosma have only a few intense weeks in July and August to catch enough to sustain their family income for the coming year. Rough seas, equipment failures, and dry streams that limit spawning all threaten to hurt their haul.

This season, the U.S.-China trade conflict has increased pressure on salmon fishermen by depressing the price offered for their hard-earned catch. China, the biggest importer of Alaska seafood, included the industry in a 25% tariff increase imposed last year.

Mr. Stroosma, who has fished salmon for 35 years, says he is being offered only 30 cents a pound for pink salmon this year, compared with 45 cents last year. Chum salmon dropped from 90 cents to 50 cents over the same time period, he says.

“I know the government feels that … China has unfair trade practices with us so we’re playing hardball with them,” Mr. Stroosma says in a call from aboard Voyager, his 58-foot purse seine boat, during a refueling stop. “But this is a small sector of the economy that is being affected pretty seriously.” 

Courtesy of Sven Stroosma
Fishermen Casey Stroosma (son of Voyager owner Sven Stroosma) and friend Peter Donato, in an aluminum skiff, are ready to set the net for salmon off the coast of southeast Alaska this summer.

The Pacific Northwest and many of its key industries are being hit hard as the U.S.-China trade conflict worsens, raising questions about what localities and businesses can do to defend their economic interests against policies coming from Washington, D.C. With new tariffs in the offing and China no longer the top U.S. trade partner, according to data released last week, groups and officials in areas that rely heavily on the trade relationship with China are speaking out against the economic decoupling. 

“We need to get the message inside the Beltway that we are hurting out here and these tariffs are the reason,” says J. Norwell Coquillard, executive director of the Washington State China Relations Council. While he and others agree China should be challenged for its unfair trade practices, including limits on market access and the lack of intellectual property protections, he disagrees with the Trump administration’s tariff strategy. With more than 100 corporate and other members including Boeing, Microsoft, and Starbucks, the council issued a statement in July strongly urging both sides to “find common ground quickly” and move to expand and strengthen U.S.-China trade.

No end in sight

Washington, Alaska, and Oregon are among the top seven states most affected by China’s tariffs, based on a percentage of gross domestic product. U.S. industries most heavily impacted, as measured by total employment, include aircraft manufacturing and fruit farming, according to research by Deutsche Bank. Governors, mayors, and other local leaders are taking the initiative to keep doors open with China for the long term, while lawmakers are lobbying for relief packages.

Washington is the most trade-dependent state in the country, with about 40% of all jobs linked to international commerce, and historically it has been the state with the most trade by value with China, according to a June report by the Seattle-based Washington Council on International Trade. China is Washington’s largest trade partner, with $32.4 billion in two-way trade including $16 billion of exports and $16.4 billion of imports, the report says.

Chinese tariffs will directly or indirectly affect an estimated 28,700 jobs, $1.7 billion in labor income, and $6 billion in business revenue in Washington state, according to a May report by Community Attributes Inc. (CAI), a Seattle-based economic research firm.

Apart from salmon fishermen, Washington’s cherry, apple, and wheat farmers have been hit by the tariffs, allowing producers in other countries to make inroads in China, says Mr. Coquillard. “All these things are devastating to our businesses here.” 

Courtesy of Sven Stroosma
The Voyager, salmon fisherman Sven Stroosma's purse seine boat, retrieves the net as its crew fish for salmon off the coast of Alaska near Juneau in July 2018.

The negative impact on Washington’s economy comes not only from falling exports to China, but also the reduction of cargo flows to Pacific ports. The value of cargo subject to tariff increases passing through Washington ports fell from $27 billion in 2017 to $24 billion in 2018, according to the CAI report.

“There are a lot of longshoremen and tugboats and a lot of work done to get those [exports] to China, and we all lose out if that disappears,” Mr. Coquillard says.

Despite such concerns, the U.S. and China appear locked in the trade conflict that experts say is unlikely to end soon. Mr. Trump announced Aug. 1 that the U.S. will impose a 10% tariff on another $300 billion of Chinese imports, starting Sept. 1. On Monday, Beijing appeared to retaliate by allowing its currency to weaken – and the Trump administration promptly designated the country a “currency manipulator.”

China experts doubt Beijing will bow to Mr. Trump’s pressure tactics, but say Washington is also unlikely to back down. “Prosecuting the trade war is a political winner for [Mr. Trump], so for reasons of substance and politics it will be very difficult to move this administration off its current trajectory,” says Scott Kennedy, who directs the Project on Chinese Business & Political Economy at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Mixed view on “bailouts”

Businesses damaged by the trade spat can move production or investments to avoid tariffs, increase efficiency to absorb added costs, and apply for tariff exemptions. Indeed, “individual company announcements and aggregate trade and investment flows show companies are far into their adjusting to the trade war,” Mr. Kennedy says. 

Still, some small-business owners, including salmon fishermen, have limited choices.

“It’s not like they can switch to other species that are not subject to the tariff or have markets beyond China,” said Robert Kehoe, executive director of the Purse Seine Vessel Owners’ Association, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization with nearly 300 members – most of them salmon fishermen – located along the West coast and throughout Alaska. “They don’t have any good options, other than just to keep fishing and get less money for their product.”

Mr. Stroosma and his deckhands – two sons, a nephew, and a friend – use Voyager and a small aluminum skiff to set the large weighted seine, or net, which hangs 100 feet deep in the ocean. They then tighten a purse line at the bottom of the seine to trap schools of salmon and haul them on board with a mechanized winch called a power block. It’s dangerous and demanding work.

“Right now, everybody hopes to be on their A game and be as productive as possible,” says Mr. Stroosma. “When the fish stop running it is like a faucet just turned off. … If you didn’t get what you needed to get or you broke down during the peak times, that can be disastrous for your season.”

By shrinking already narrow price margins, the Chinese tariffs are threatening to push some salmon fishers out of business.

“A lot of people fish year-round to keep the house payments made and the boat payments made,” says Mr. Stroosma, who lives north of Seattle in Mount Vernon. “There are definitely a lot of people struggling right now to make ends meet.”

Lawmakers from Alaska, Washington, and Oregon have lobbied the Trump administration to provide relief for the fishing industry, as it has for farmers, after Mr. Trump announced in May as much as $16 billion in aid for domestic agriculture impacted by China’s tariffs. 

“China’s retaliatory actions are taking a heavy toll on Alaska seafood and the consequences … are getting worse,” Alaska’s congressional delegation wrote in a June letter to the U.S. agriculture secretary, saying it is not sustainable for fishermen to continue to absorb the costs. “The Alaska seafood industry cannot effectively compete in the Chinese domestic market” and is losing its edge to Russia and other competitors, the letter says.

In another initiative by lawmakers, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton introduced legislation in June that seeks to amend the law on disaster relief for fisheries to include harm from tariffs.

Mr. Stroosma has mixed feelings about any government relief.

“Fishermen – probably very similarly to farmers – we are very independent,” says Mr. Stroosma, who first fell in love with salmon fishing when he joined a crew one summer as a 19-year-old University of Washington student to help pay for college. “We don’t like to rely on government bailouts.”

Most important, though, is the strength of U.S. fisheries and the fleet as a food producer. “We are not looking for handouts,” he says, “but if that is what we need to stay viable and make it through this trade problem – it might not be a bad idea.”

[Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct figures for the value of cargo passing through Washington ports, and for tariffs’ impact on the Washington state economy.]

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3. In Sierra Leone’s fight against rape, a reminder that law is not enough

Top-down decrees send a powerful message. But that may be only the start of changing attitudes and behavior, especially when combating violence against women and girls.

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For decades, Sierra Leone has recorded high levels of sexual violence. And to many women fighting to change that, their battle felt like an invisible one – until this winter.

Anger finally burst into the open as high-profile cases piled up, particularly against children. Soon, President Julius Maada Bio took the unprecedented step of declaring sexual violence a national emergency, and urged half a dozen reforms. “My government will ensure that men who rape have no place in society and will be jailed forever,” he declared, “so that a single rape becomes the last rape.”

But since then, activists’ initial elation has turned to frustration. Lawmakers have rescinded the national emergency. And advocates say there’s been little in the way of real resources or change.

It’s a setback, for sure. But what Sierra Leone’s experience also underscores is where the most important work against gender-based violence needs to happen: at home, in schools, in neighborhoods. Top-down decrees begin with bottom-up education.

After the decree, “more families will step forward to get justice,” says Vickie Remoe, a blogger and activist. But “we need to raise boys in a way where their identities ... do not rely on dominating women.”

“The work is with us.”

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In Sierra Leone’s fight against rape, a reminder that law is not enough

The walls of the Rainbo Center are painted a bright, cheery yellow. But on the hardwood seats lined along its narrow waiting area, a heavy silence hovers, occasionally broken by voices escaping closed doors. 

“Number 10!” Mamanama Massaquoi announces, leading a young woman to a room marked “Counsellor.” Ms. Massaquoi is head administrator here at Rainbo, tucked into a maternity hospital north of Freetown: a nonprofit center providing free care to survivors of rape and sexual assault.

Sierra Leone, on the coast of West Africa, has recorded high levels of sexual violence for decades. Its 7 million people still grapple with the aftermath of an 11-year civil war in which rape was a widespread weapon. As many as 257,000 women may have suffered sexual violence during the conflict, which ended in 2002. But the fight against rape has seemed nearly invisible – until this winter.

Public outrage finally spilled into the streets as high-profile cases piled up, particularly against children. In February, President Julius Maada Bio declared sexual violence a national emergency, and women’s advocates celebrated.

Not for long. Today, the national emergency order has been rescinded, and responses to the crisis are back to debate, as Parliament considers a revision of the country’s 2012 Sexual Offenses Act. For activists, the stopping and starting is frustrating. But it’s also a reminder that top-down decrees against sexual violence can only go so far. With or without them, it takes more work to change attitudes – and initiatives from the government’s “Hands off our girls” campaign to “husband schools” are committed to doing so.

The president’s announcement gave “many families the confidence to step forward and has told women and girls that their lives are valued by the state,” says Vickie Remoe, a blogger and TV producer who founded the women’s advocacy group Sisters’ Circles. “But the declaration itself is limited because it doesn’t change the cultural beliefs and traditional gender roles that place girls and women below men.”

Growing outcry

In 2018, reported cases of sexual violence rose to an all-time high of 8,505. Considering stigma and inadequate access to legal services, those are likely only a fraction of the total.

“Back in the day in Sierra Leone, only the rape of children and virgins were considered as ‘serious crimes,’” says Ms. Remoe. “When a girl or woman was raped the focus was on the victim, what she did, and how she brought this on herself. The culture of victim-blaming starts within the family, all the way to the judiciary.”

Of the 3,000-plus cases Rainbo received in 2018, only 1.2 percent were successfully prosecuted, according to director Daniel Kettor.

“The victims just say ‘I leave everything to God,’” says Agatha Levi, Rainbo’s media officer.

But last year, Sierra Leoneans took to the streets over reports of a 5-year-old who was raped by an uncle and sustained injuries that left her paralyzed. As pressure mounted, President Bio declared the national emergency. “With immediate effect, sexual penetration of minors is punishable by life imprisonment,” he passionately announced.

It was an unprecedented move. The only other time widespread rape was publicly acknowledged was after the civil war, when reconciliation hearings documented the testimonies of hundreds of survivors.

President Bio also announced a six point agenda, including free care for survivors at all state hospitals, special police and judicial divisions to speed up proceedings, and a national hotline to report abuse. Most were merely recommendations, but activists were hopeful.

Bold plan meets reality

In the following months, reported cases at Rainbo Centers doubled. “More women now feel comfortable to tell their stories and even name their perpetrators,” Ms. Levi says. 

A special police unit for rape and sexual violence has been established to try to speed up investigations and prosecutions. But many of the other goals laid down in the president’s recommended agenda have failed to translate into real resources or change, women’s advocates say, including free medical care and hotlines.

“There is the political will, but we’ve not seen any tangible change,” says Fatmata Sorie, a Freetown-based attorney and president of LAWYERS, an all-female legal group aiding survivors. 

Even the national emergency’s centerpiece – life imprisonment for rape of a minor – is not binding until the government amends the Sexual Offenses Act. And the national emergency declaration itself was revoked by Parliament in late June. Some had criticized the president for using a top-down decree, and the legislature is now debating revisions to the Sexual Offenses Act, including life imprisonment for rape of minors.

Some activists hope that new legislation will provide an opportunity for more robust responses, and time to consider unaddressed problems, such as witness protection and underage offenders. As survivors get younger, Rainbo staff say, the perpetrators are increasingly minors, too – a problem they attribute, in part, to inadequate sexual education. 

“The real work rests in our families”

Cases like this are why Sierra Leone’s crisis needs cultural and educational responses, advocates say, to support legal reform. First Lady Fatima Maada Bio has launched a “Hands off our girls” campaign against early marriage and sexual assault, and joined marchers in December.

Ultimately, sexual violence is a symptom of deep gender inequality, Ms. Remoe says, and solving that isn’t something a law alone can do. But she does see more awareness than ever before.

Since 2017, Rainbo has been developing community-specific plans to engage men and boys. “We have monthly meetings where we have intergenerational dialogues – youth, traditional leaders – and we talk about how to tackle and prevent [gender-based violence] in their communities,” says Mr. Kettor, the director. “At the end we come up with action points as to how to go about it.” 

“Men like defending those actions,” he adds. “At first they say women are to be blamed, but when we present the data to them, that makes it more powerful. They can connect it to their own families.”

In eastern Sierra Leone, the Husband School, an initiative of FINE Salone, a nonprofit that advocates for gender equality, also takes a men-led approach, conducting informal classes about domestic and sexual violence.

“The real work rests in our families and our communities,” Ms. Remoe affirms. “We need to raise boys in a way where their identities around masculinity and manhood do not rely on dominating women. We need to raise them to understand that girls and boys are equal, and men and women are equal. The work is with us.”  

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4. Dinged cars and damaged roofs: The high cost of a gull’s meal

Gulls are ingenious, and often a source of collateral damage. Our reporter looks at how that relationship between humans and birds is progressing.

David
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Sea gulls stand on a car roof in Tasmania, Australia. Renowned for their aerial acrobatics, gulls are also known for leaving their mark on car roofs and hoods.

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Barry Fast runs Seagull Control Systems from City Island in the Bronx. He got into the business 12 years ago because he was trying to figure out how to protect his own boating dock from pesky gulls.

“We do a lot of work in the Hamptons,” he says. He also says he’s successfully banished gulls from whole lakes, shopping malls, and a nuclear power plant, among other places.

Gulls are renowned for their aerial acrobatics, brazen beach food heists, and shrill squawks. They also have a knack for causing collateral damage when they’re hungry.

Some of the birds peck through the shells of clams, oysters, or mussels, but that’s hard work. So instead, they hoist their prey aloft. And let go.

“Gulls are very creative and they have, over time, learned to drop mollusks on hard surfaces,” says Wayne Petersen, a director at Mass Audubon. “Young gulls see other gulls doing this, and they try it and say, ‘This works.’”

Tracie Cote, principal of the middle school in Wareham, Massachusetts, is all too familiar with this behavior. “They love to drop the shells on our roof,” she says. “We get holes.”

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Dinged cars and damaged roofs: The high cost of a gull’s meal

Francis Choi blamed the kids. Four months after he got a new car, he found a deep dent in the hood: an obvious sign of a playground ball gone awry.

His mechanic had a different theory: “Do you live near the ocean?” the man asked Mr. Choi. “This looks like a clam dent.”

It was the gulls.

“Now whenever I cross the causeway, I’m looking out for the sea gulls,” says Mr. Choi, a researcher at Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center, who commutes across a thin spit every day to his lab in Nahant, northeast of Boston. “I feel terrible that I thought it was kids.”

Gulls are renowned for their aerial acrobatics, their brazen beach food heists, shrill squawks, and pervasive poop – “We call it the Gloucester paint job,” says Kenneth Hecht, a councilman in the old fishing port of Gloucester, Massachusetts.

The birds also are prolific bombers. First, they dig clams, oysters, mussels, scallops, and other creatures from the sand, or scoop them from the surf. Some gulls will peck through the shell, but that’s hard work. So instead, they hoist their prey aloft. And let go.

“Gulls are very creative and they have, over time, learned to drop mollusks on hard surfaces,” says Wayne Petersen, a director at Mass Audubon. “It’s a learned behavior. Young gulls see other gulls doing this, and they try it and say, ‘This works.’”

Eliseo Fernandez/Reuters/File
A sea gull flies near cars arriving from China at the Port of Valparaiso northwest of Santiago, Chile, on Aug. 31, 2006. Sea gulls present an ever present danger to parked cars in coastal communities around the world.

The fall and impact break the shells or stun the inner creature to loosen its clamped armor. The scheme also creates collateral damage. Tracie Cote, principal of the middle school in Wareham, Massachusetts, found that out last winter when water started pouring into several classrooms.

“We are right by the wetlands, and when the sea gulls get their shells, our roof must be convenient for them,” Ms. Cote says. “They love to drop the shells on our roof, which is an older roof with a membrane that punctures. We get holes.”

Roofers patched the holes regularly and swept the accumulated shells off the roof, but one day last February, she arrived at 6 a.m. to find a flood. “We were wading through water – past my ankles,” she says. Roofers found the gulls’ bombs had put a hole in the roof surface where snow and water had accumulated. School was canceled for three days.

“I never knew this was part of the job,” says Ms. Cote. “I love sea gulls, but I just wish they would stay away from our middle school.”

Obstacle course

The shell rubble can be enough to create obstacles. On the wide sidewalk at Massachusetts’ Revere Beach, America’s oldest public beach, sharp shell shards litter the pavement between sweepings, a hazard for bike tires, barefoot humans, and dogs. 

It’s not exactly a new problem, and one that courts creative embellishment. A 1932 item in the Vineyard Gazette on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts said that gulls were dropping shells on rats “with a precision that almost never fails to connect with the rodent below, knocking it unconscious or killing it outright on the spot, whereupon the gulls descend and feast on fresh meat.”

These days, airports near water try to discourage gulls and other birds with a variety of tools – shotguns, cannon blasts, even falcons.

Over the years seemingly sober studies have been done, but with hardly sensational results. A 1981 study in Bodega Bay, California, produced an elaborate graph showing the heavier the shell, the less high the gulls took it. Another study, in 1978, plotted 525 shell bombings and concluded that young gulls were significantly less accurate in hitting pavement. Science at work.

Mass Audubon's Mr. Petersen, who has been a tour guide and bird lecturer for more than 35 years, does note gently that – Jonathan Livingston Seagull aside – there is no such species as sea gull. They are all just gulls, and many of them happen to live near the sea.

But woe to an unsuspecting homebuyer looking at a seaside property with a flat, metal roof. Barry Fast, who runs a business called Seagull Control Systems from City Island in the Bronx, says recent clients had bought a family compound of houses in Avalon, New Jersey, with a metal roof over a master bedroom.

“Every day at dawn, the gulls would collect mussels or clams at low tide, and from 30 to 40 feet, would drop them on the metal roof,” Mr. Fast reports. “It was cacophony.”

His company’s chief strategy is to string very thin wires in wide spacing over flat surfaces. Sharp-eyed gulls can see the wire, and don’t land where their lengthy takeoff pattern could hit interference.

Mr. Fast got into the business 12 years ago to try to figure out how to protect his own boating dock. He says he has successfully banished gulls from whole lakes, shopping malls, roofs of major industries, a nuclear power plant, cruise ships, landfills, solar panels, food processing plants, and lots of private homes.

“We do a lot of work in the Hamptons,” he says. “Really beautiful homes, but they all inevitably have big white stone decks and swimming pools. Sea gulls love to break their clams and then take a dip in the pool.”

A rubberized solution

One solution for the shell bombs is a bouncier roof. Rick Starbard, owner of Rick’s Auto Collision, near the gull-thick Revere Beach, says he used to hear the thump of shells on his roof regularly. But then he replaced the roof with an insulated and rubberized surface. The shells apparently rebound instead of crack. Problem solved.

In Gloucester, “it’s not just shells,” says Bradley Royds, a musician and music producer. “It’s bones and sticks and cigarette butts.” Much of the debris dropped on top of his studio was used to build rooftop nests. He says he often had to stop recording in the studio because of the raucous gulls.

Mr. Royds, who insists “I’m for gulls, but they shouldn’t be living in an unnatural, unhealthy urban environment eating garbage,” has led a movement of businesspeople who got permits to dismantle the nests. (Gull nests and the birds are federally protected.) He’s also deployed an armory of nonlethal methods: spikes, wires, laser lights, motion detectors, and even a drone. 

“It’s a lot better now,” Mr. Royds observed on a recent summer day. “In fact, it’s dead quiet right now. Maybe they are out chasing a fishing boat.”

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5. Not just a toy: Channel-hopping hoverboard draws military’s eye

Humankind has been solving the problem of flight for centuries. Now, a French inventor has an innovative approach that could be a battlefield tool.  

David
Yves Herman/Reuters
French inventor Franky Zapata takes off on a Flyboard Air in Sangatte, France, on Aug. 4, in his second (and ultimately successful) attempt to cross the English Channel.

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On Sunday, standing atop a small platform fitted with five jet engines, inventor Franky Zapata took 20 minutes to cross the English Channel from Sangatte, France, to Kent, England. But while his device, the Flyboard Air, may appear the stuff of science fiction, it is the French military that hopes he will make it a viable reality.

The French Army, which has funded Mr. Zapata to the tune of $1.5 million, say the hoverboard could one day be a battlefield trump card. French special forces are working closely with Mr. Zapata, a former jet-ski world champion, to fine-tune his machine. “Innovation is not a gimmick,” said Defense Minister Florence Parly of the hoverboard, which she suggested could function as “a flying logistics platform, or an assault platform,” conjuring an image of squadrons of individually airborne infantry descending on an enemy.

But that will take time. “That’s because [the Flyboard] has limited autonomy, it is hardly inconspicuous, and it is difficult to fly,” says Marion Laguës, spokeswoman for the French Defense Innovation Agency. “It is the development prospects that are interesting.”

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Not just a toy: Channel-hopping hoverboard draws military’s eye

When Franky Zapata flew a jet-propelled hoverboard across the English Channel on Sunday – the first person to do so – he impressed more than sci-fi gadget geeks.

Also watching with interest was the French military high command.

Fantasy film aficionados would recognize Mr. Zapata’s invention. In “Spider-Man,” the Green Goblin sows terror from something very like the Flyboard Air that Mr. Zapata piloted across the channel. Marty McFly uses a similar vehicle in “Back to the Future 2.”

The French Army, though, which has funded Mr. Zapata to the tune of $1.5 million, sees a serious real-life purpose. One day, military planners say, the hoverboard could be a battlefield trump card, and French special forces are working closely with the French inventor, a former jet-ski world champion, to fine-tune his machine.

On Sunday, Mr. Zapata took 20 minutes to fly the 18 miles that separate Sangatte, near Calais in France, to St. Margaret’s Bay in Kent, England. Standing atop a small platform fitted with five jet engines, setting his direction by leaning and his speed with a remote control, he traveled at up to 80 miles an hour about 50 feet above the water.

He stopped once to refuel on a boat positioned halfway across the channel, donning a new backpack full of the kerosene that powered the engines.

On July 14, at the Bastille Day military parade in Paris, Mr. Zapata stole the show as he hovered and swooped above the crowd, brandishing a rifle. “Proud of our army, modern and innovative,” tweeted President Emmanuel Macron alongside video he posted of the Flyboard Air in action.

Michel Spingler/AP
Franky Zapata sets out from Sangatte, France, on Aug. 4. Mr. Zapata’s first attempt to traverse the English Channel on a flying board 10 days earlier failed when he crashed into a refueling boat 12 miles into the trip.

Defense Minister Florence Parly was equally taken by the machine. “Innovation is not a gimmick.” The hoverboard could serve as “a flying logistics platform, or an assault platform,” she suggested, conjuring an image of squadrons of individually airborne infantry descending on an enemy.

But not tomorrow. “As it stands, the Flyboard Air has no operational use,” says Marion Laguës, spokeswoman for the French Defense Innovation Agency, a branch of the General Directorate for Weaponry, which is helping to finance the development of new, quieter jet engines.

“That’s because it has limited autonomy, it is hardly inconspicuous, and it is difficult to fly,” she says. “But it prefigures new uses,” Ms. Lagues adds. “It is the development prospects that are interesting, and the Ministry of Defense is studying the kinds of mission that this sort of aircraft might carry out.”

Whether the Flyboard Air is indeed an aircraft or not is a question that nearly wrecked the whole project. French civil aviation bureaucrats grounded Mr. Zapata in 2017 because he had no pilot’s license and his experimental machine had not been certified.

It was then that the inventor approached French special forces (though American military equipment manufacturers are reported to have tried to tempt him to work in the United States). The ties he developed with the French military persuaded the civil aviation authority to give him a special dispensation for the Flyboard Air.

But that leeway has not been extended to the Ezfly, the more manageable, commercial version of Mr. Zapata’s hoverboard, which resembles an airborne Segway. Even as a rich man’s toy, the Ezfly is not available for sale while Mr. Zapata and the authorities argue about how exactly to categorize what it is that he has invented.

Sometimes being a murderous supervillain has its advantages; the Green Goblin never had to put up with that kind of bureaucratic obstruction.

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The Monitor's View

The latest lesson in how to end a conflict

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Mozambique has been home to one of the world’s longest-lasting rebel conflicts. On Tuesday, however, the southern African nation claimed a much better distinction. A final peace pact was signed, but one that differs sharply from similar agreements in other war-torn places: Key elements of the accord were already in the works before the signing.

International mediators had applied a key lesson from attempts to end other world conflicts: Good-faith intentions about a cease-fire, forgiveness of past atrocities, or national reconciliation must first be made concrete by actions.

Mozambique still faces issues in how to reintegrate the former rebels. It also has a small Islamist insurgency in the north. But with foreign help, it has so far applied the lessons of peacemaking and defied a destiny of endless conflict.

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The latest lesson in how to end a conflict

Mozambique is not only one of the world’s poorest countries; it also has been home to one of the world’s longest-lasting rebel conflicts. On Tuesday, however, the southern African nation claimed a much better distinction. A final peace pact was signed in the capital, Maputo, but one that differs sharply from similar agreements in other war-torn places: Key elements of the accord were already in the works before the signing.

International mediators had applied a key lesson from attempts to end other world conflicts: Good-faith intentions about a cease-fire, forgiveness of past atrocities, or national reconciliation must first be made concrete by actions. Trust but verify, as Ronald Reagan once famously said. Mozambique needed this lesson, given its record of previous peace pacts breaking down.

The signing ceremony was preceded by the start of a disarmament of the former rebel group Renamo. The ruling Frelimo party, meanwhile, had amended the constitution to decentralize power and allow gubernatorial elections. In addition, the parliament passed an amnesty bill last month that exempts forces on both sides from prosecution for crimes committed since 2014.

“Here in Mozambique, there has been implementation of 90% of the issues before the actual signing,” said negotiator Mirko Manzoni, the Swiss ambassador to Mozambique and the personal envoy of the United Nations secretary-general.

Such steps are also necessary because the country faces an election in October. If the voting process is relatively clean and free of violence, Mozambique will have passed a critical test. And it will have joined other African countries, such as Kenya, that have relied on mediators for political reconciliation to end violence. In fact, many leaders from other democracies in Africa attended the signing in Mozambique. An average 75% of Africans say they want to choose their leaders through “regular, open and honest elections,” a recent poll found.

Mozambique still faces issues in how to reintegrate the former rebels. It also has a small Islamist insurgency in the north. But with foreign help, it has so far applied the lessons of peacemaking and defied a destiny of endless conflict.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Protection during attack

It’s possible to know God as an active, protecting presence in our lives, as one young man experienced when attacked by a stranger on a city street.

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Protection during attack

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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As a child, I experienced several healings through reliance on Christian Science treatment, such as a broken arm that was perfectly healed within a few days. Experiences such as this led me to know God as an active presence in my experience, which helped me stay out of trouble as a teenager and gave me something practical to turn to when there were needs.

For instance, when I was a high school senior, one night I was in the city with a friend, and a man approached us on the sidewalk. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, he drew back his fist to strike me. I recall mentally calling out to God for help in the moment of the attack.

The idea that God was present, and could help, instantly filled my thoughts, and I knew that I was safe. I found myself ducking in a way I’d never practiced. The man slid over my back from the momentum of his strike. The next thing I knew, he was sliding onto the sidewalk behind me.

Right away, a thought clearly from God replaced defensiveness and fear with compassion, and spoke to me of this man’s innocence as God’s beloved son. As I looked down, I knew that childlike innocence constituted this man’s true identity, regardless of the grotesque behavior, which was not in accord with his real, spiritual nature. I did not fear him.

My friend encouraged us to leave the scene, yet the man pursued us into a busy coffeehouse. Again I reached out wholeheartedly to God for help, and immediately felt a calm sense of direction. As the man tried to attack me a second time, I was again led to move in a particular way. This carried us both through the crowd to a place where we were safely separated. The man screamed and left. I was completely unharmed, as were my friend and the other people nearby.

My friend called the police. They picked the man up, invited me to identify him, and asked if I wished to press charges. I shared that I felt he needed to be in custody so others would be safe, but I sought no compensation or retribution.

When I arrived home late at night, my mother met me at the door and told me that she had felt impelled to stop her activities at the very time this had happened, and to give her full attention to praying for me. This was before cellphones. We’d had no contact.

That night I opened my Bible and “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science. I read many comforting passages in these books that reassured me with the truth of God’s love for His creation. The many healing messages I read washed away any remaining sense of disturbance from the incident.

The next day, I was asked to testify in court. I would have preferred not to interact with this man again, but I prayed for the humility to yield to God’s will. As I did, I gained a great sense of peace and the surety that God was meeting everyone’s needs as things unfolded.

The court soon called back and said my testimony would not be needed because the defendant had asked for help overcoming his problems to ensure this kind of attack would not happen again. It was clear to me that God’s protecting love was enfolding and providing for us all.

Each of us can humbly turn to God and, as the Bible says, we can find that He is indeed “a very present help in trouble” (Psalms 46:1).

Adapted from a testimony published in the March 21, 2016, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Viewfinder

Remembering Hiroshima

Kyodo/Reuters
A girl releases paper lanterns on the Motoyasu River facing the gutted Atomic Bomb Dome in remembrance of atomic bomb victims on the 74th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, Aug. 6, 2019.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( August 7th, 2019 )

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: We’re working on a story about how El Paso, Texas, residents view their safety after the Walmart shooting. 

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