2021
July
27
Tuesday

Monitor Daily Podcast

July 27, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

The things they carry

When I met San, she was painting rocks with nail polish.

These were prized possessions, she told me one afternoon at a Boston soup kitchen, her little contribution of beauty to this world. She kept them tucked in a menagerie of duffels and luggage, too many to bring into a shelter. So San (I never learned her last name) slept on a stoop.

For people experiencing homelessness, keeping track of belongings is a full-time affair. Grabbing a meal or attending a job interview can mean leaving valuables unattended. Recently, communities have started to offer storage spaces for people who are precariously housed.

In San Diego, the lesson was hard won. The American Civil Liberties Union sued the city after homeless individuals lost all of their belongings in a series of law enforcement sweeps through their camps. The settlement included plans for a transitional storage facility with 300 lockers.

In Los Angeles, officials are offering storage space as part of a concerted effort to humanely relocate tent dwellers from the Venice boardwalk to temporary housing at a nearby hotel, as Francine Kiefer covered last week.

Across the country, Northampton, Massachusetts, is testing the idea on a smaller scale with 24 lockers after the mayor’s work group on panhandling interviewed individuals about their needs.

Lee Anderson, treasurer and head cook at Northampton's Manna Community Kitchen, had seen firsthand that many of the soup kitchen regulars often went stretches without coming in for a meal.

“Sometimes I wouldn’t see a guest,” he told Western Mass News, “and I would say hey how come you missed the last few meals, and sometimes it would be well, I wasn’t hungry enough to risk my stuff.”

As San told me, when you don’t have a house to call your own, a bit of “stuff” can feel like home.

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‘Coup’ in Tunisia: Why Arab Spring’s last light is dimming

In Tunisia, a presidential power grab that seized on political deadlock and pandemic pressures is winning support from large segments of a public increasingly disillusioned on democracy.

Noelle

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When Tunisia’s populist president, Kais Saied, a former constitutional law professor, seized emergency powers Sunday, it prompted fears among Tunisian democrats and Arab activists for the last, best hope for political freedoms in the region.

But among many Tunisians, patience with democracy had been wearing thin, amid a severe economic downturn, government paralysis, and lingering suspicions of corruption. A dramatic new surge in the pandemic represented a breaking point, pushing many to look for solutions at any cost.

For still others, Mr. Saied’s power grab was cause for relief and even celebration. “What Kais Saied has done is a good thing. We have had enough of shouting matches between MPs – let them be suspended, they never did anything good for the country,” says Aymen Kacem, a driver in Tunis.

Others voice the concern that young Tunisians rooting for the president have little memory of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted in the Arab Spring, and are all too eager to support a one-man rule. Which is why several parties issued statements condemning the move and expressing their concern.

“Tunisia is in a tug of war between dictatorship and democracy,” says Achref Abdalla, an artist. “We are moving step by step in the wrong direction.”

‘Coup’ in Tunisia: Why Arab Spring’s last light is dimming

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Slim Abid/AP
Tunisian President Kais Saied (center) leads a security meeting with members of the army and police forces in Tunis, Tunisia, July 25, 2021. Troops surrounded Tunisia's parliament after the president suspended the legislature and fired the prime minister.

With a single announcement, the last embers of the once-blazing Arab Spring were dimmed by what some are calling a constitutional coup in the Arab world’s lone democracy.

On Sunday, Tunisia’s populist president, Kais Saied, seized emergency powers for what he pledged would be a 30-day interim period. He dismissed the prime minister and defense minister, “froze” parliament, and mobilized army units to bar elected representatives from the parliament building.

By using the emergency measure, Mr. Saied, a former constitutional law professor, upended a carefully devised system that had divided powers to avoid a backslide into a strongman dictatorship such as that of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted in the Arab Spring.

With his suspension of parliament and no higher court to challenge him, the president’s rule is near-supreme, prompting fears among Tunisian democrats and Arab activists that the country that served as the last, best hope for Arab political freedoms might follow Egypt back to autocratic rule.

Fueled by a severe economic downturn, government paralysis, and lingering suspicions of corruption, Tunisians’ patience with the democratic process was wearing thin. But a dramatic new surge in the pandemic represented a breaking point, pushing many to look for solutions at any cost.

For still others, Mr. Saied’s power grab late Sunday was cause for relief and even celebration, including fireworks and boisterous motorcades.

Which in turn fueled concerns among Tunisia’s dwindling champions of democracy.

“We have made people hate democracy and hate political parties, and that is on us,” an independent member of parliament, Safi Said, said in a local radio interview Monday. “But that doesn’t mean we give up on democracy. It means we hold early elections and let the people decide.”

But there is a concern among Tunisia’s revolutionaries that young Tunisians rooting for Mr. Saied have little memory of the Ben Ali dictatorship and are all too eager to support a one-man rule.

“Many young Tunisians didn’t live under a dictatorship like we did. ... If you give a dictator an inch, they will take meters before you know it,” Mr. Said said.

Which is why several political parties issued statements condemning the move and expressing their concern.

“Tunisia is in a tug of war between dictatorship and democracy,” says Achref Abdalla, a 31-year-old artist. “We are moving step by step in the wrong direction.”

“Imminent danger”

Under Tunisia’s semi-presidential system, the directly elected president oversees the army and foreign affairs, while the parliament-appointed prime minister is the head of government, an arrangement that President Saied had long bristled at.

With Mr. Saied’s constitutionally dubious power grab, he now is the executive authority, has control of both army and the police, and is acting as a “public prosecutor,” vaguely promising to hold “corrupt” persons “to account” for “looting the state’s resources.” 

Seizing on a delta variant-fueled surge in the pandemic that has devastated Tunisia’s health system, Mr. Saied triggered a constitutional article allowing the president “exceptional measures in the event of imminent danger.”

Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters
Security personnel stand guard outside the parliament building in Tunis, Tunisia, July 27, 2021.

Tunisia is suffering one of the highest infection rates in the world, at 8,000 daily new cases among its 12 million population. On July 8, its then-health minister declared that the health system “collapsed.”

Hospitals have experienced shortages of oxygen and beds, COVID-19 patients have spent days in the streets waiting to be admitted to hospitals, and the bodies of deceased COVID-19 patients have gone unburied. Officials say some 18,000 Tunisians have died from the pandemic.

Military solution

In recent weeks, Mr. Saied had mobilized the army to take over the pandemic response, capitalizing on what he described as the government’s “criminal” mishandling of the crisis.

He recruited nurses into the army and dispatched them to virus-stricken communities. He worked diplomatic lines to receive donations of oxygen, medical supplies, and vaccines.

That helped cement the support of many Tunisians for more centralized rule.

“Although grievances predate COVID, I think that the pandemic definitely increased discontent over the way the political elites handled the situation,” says Mohamed-Dhia Hammami, a Tunisian political analyst.  

“This helps to explain why people are more supportive of the concentration of power within the hands of Saied than sharing it with other political elites.”

Tunisia has seen 11 governments in 10 years, swerving from Islamist to technocrat to neoliberal, none of which had the ability to enact far-reaching reforms.

Youth unemployment has hovered between 35% and 40% for the past decade, with many choosing to risk their lives and migrate to Europe by boat. More than 12,800 illegal arrivals in Italy from Tunisia were registered in 2020 alone.

The laws parliament did pass included austerity measures to secure IMF funding, leading to government hiring freezes, the devaluation of the Tunisian dinar, and a dramatic increase in the cost of goods and food – further fueling discontent.

With the loss of tourism, Tunisia’s economy shrank by 8.6% last year, and a further 3% in the first quarter of 2021. The pandemic pushed unemployment to 17.8%.

No guardrails

All the while, many Tunisians believed politicians and members of parliament across the political spectrum have enriched themselves and their allies at the public’s expense, bemoaning a “dictatorship of parties” ruling Tunisia.

“What Kais Saied has done is a good thing. We have had enough of shouting matches between MPs – let them be suspended, they never did anything good for the country, they deserve this,” says Aymen Kacem, a 30-year-old driver in Tunis.

“Saied says he will fight corruption and that’s good, if it happens.”

The current crisis has exposed a missing element in Tunisia’s democratic transition: a constitutional court, whose establishment has languished in parliament since 2015.

“We have been playing the political game without a referee, and now it is catching up with us,” says Amine Ghali, director of the Tunis-based Al Kawkabi Democracy Transition Center.

“The institutions that are supposed to keep the president in check during this emergency period are the constitutional court and parliament. Parliament is suspended and the constitutional court does not yet exist,” says Mr. Ghali.  “As of today, there is no effective institution that can rein Saied in.”      

Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters
Police detain a demonstrator during an anti-government protest in Tunis, Tunisia, July 25, 2021.

Instead, the role of watchdog falls, as it often has, to Tunisia’s civic powers and civil society: unions, business owners, nongovernmental organizations, and activists who have come out in force again and again when post-revolutionary politicians have steered off the track or overreached.

A group of unions and civil society leaders met with Mr. Saied on Monday as he defended his move. They released statements urging the president to limit the emergency period to 30 days.

Yet later that same day, Mr. Saied imposed a monthlong evening curfew and a ban on public gatherings of more than three people, further hindering Tunisians’ ability to organize and mobilize.

Enigmatic president

Tunisians across the spectrum are waiting anxiously for the next move by the mercurial Mr. Saied, who remains an enigmatic and aloof figure.

When he emerged as a dark-horse candidate without a political party in the 2019 elections, Mr. Saied ran as a populist outsider railing against the political class, with an anti-elitist, anti-corruption platform that resonated with Tunisians. It is a rhetoric he continued as president while accomplishing little else.  

Mr. Saied has butted heads with successive prime ministers over authority, attempting to intervene in government appointments and control over the police.

The former professor has been a vocal critic of the post-revolution constitution, decrying political parties’ monopoly of Tunisia’s transition and the president’s limited powers.

Some fear he is intent on throwing out the current constitution, reintroducing the pre-revolution version, and serving as a strongman – a scenario detailed in an alleged leaked memo circulating in May that mirrored this week’s events.

Although his popularity rating has plummeted from a high of 87% to 40%, he remains the most popular figure or entity in Tunisian politics.

Despite complaining about restraints on his power, Mr. Saied never exercised his presidential authority to introduce laws to parliament. Nor has he articulated proposals to tackle the economy, unemployment, or corruption.

But a consistent crowd-pleaser has been Mr. Saied’s rivalry with Ennahdah, the largest political party left standing in Tunisia, whose founder, Rached Ghannouchi, serves as speaker of parliament.

The Islamist party has played a leading role – from forming the new constitution to serving in government coalitions – and many Tunisians blame the party, and by extension, parliament, for their current woes.

Sporadic protests targeted Ennahdah only hours before Mr. Saied’s power play Sunday. On Monday, people cheered on the military as it shuttered parliament’s gates.

“Citizens associate the failure of the economy to the failure of democracy, and the failure of democracy to failure of Ennahdah as the main political party,” says Mr. Ghali at the democracy center. “Today Kais Saied can be seen as the man who kicked Ennahdah out, and they will love him for that.”

Free speech? Hong Kong trial ends in guilty verdict for protester.

Hong Kong residents tried and failed to resist the imposition by Beijing of a draconian security law in 2020. The trial of a protester has demonstrated the extent of the law’s stifling of democratic rights. 

Noelle
Vincent Yu/AP/File
Tong Ying-kit arrives at court in a police van in Hong Kong, July 6, 2020. Mr. Tong, the first person to be tried under Hong Kong's sweeping national security law was found guilty of secessionism and terrorism on July 27, 2021.

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Tong Ying-kit, a motorcycle rider who lost control and crashed into a police cordon during protests last summer in Hong Kong, went on trial last month, accused of inciting secession. At the time of the crash, he was flying a protest slogan that called for the “liberation” of the semi-autonomous city. And under a national security law that protesters like Mr. Tong had sought to resist, that act was charged as incitement to secede. 

Hong Kong officials say the 2020 security law, drafted by China’s Communist rulers, was necessary to restore order after violent clashes with police had paralyzed the city in recent years. They say the city’s residents can continue to exercise their civil rights and freedoms under the law. 

But activists say the trial of Mr. Tong, which ended Tuesday with his conviction of terrorism and inciting secession, shows the limits of free speech. It’s another marker of the extent to which Hong Kong’s traditions of free speech are rapidly being emasculated by the security law. 

One year after the law was introduced, its impact is felt across the city, particularly in politics and media. Scholars say the law has become a tool to suppress political opposition, muffle free speech, and inject fear and apathy into society. “The government will go to great lengths to turn any crime or mere behavior involving opposition into an [national security law] charge,” said Michael Davis, a former Hong Kong law professor.

Free speech? Hong Kong trial ends in guilty verdict for protester.

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For the last four weeks, a court here has deconstructed the last minutes of a motorcyclist’s defiant downtown ride on July 1, 2020, as thousands of people protested in the streets. His ride ended when he crashed into a police cordon and injured three officers.  

For most of the trial, witnesses speculated as to the meaning of the black flag that fluttered from Tong Ying-kit’s motorcycle that read, “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our Time,” a slogan popular during the 2019 protests.  

Had Mr. Tong crashed the day before, he might have faced punishment for reckless driving or endangering police. His ride, though, happened on the first day of a new national security law in Hong Kong. Prosecutors subsequently charged him with terrorism and inciting secession. On Tuesday, he was convicted by a court on both counts and now faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Mr. Tong’s trial and conviction is just one way this former British colony has changed in the one year since China’s central government in Beijing imposed the national security law. The law’s reach has stunned many residents and human rights activists. Over the last year, Hong Kong officials have arrested more than 100 people and charged more than 60 pro-democracy activists and news executives. The government has expelled lawmakers and frozen the assets of the city’s most prominent independent news company, forcing it to close last month.

The conviction of Mr. Tong indicates how far Hong Kong’s rights of free speech have been curtailed under the security law. While city officials insist that residents are free, activists and organizations face enormous pressure to keep silent.

During the trial, prosecutors told a panel of three judges in the High Court that Mr. Tong broke the law by encouraging people to break from the central government. “He conducted a parade in an area with his political agenda and was inciting others to commit secession,” Anthony Chow, acting deputy director of public prosecutions, said in his closing comments.

Matthew Cheng/AP
A prison van that a police officer says is carrying Tong Ying-kit arrives at a court in Hong Kong, July 27, 2021.

The defense presented two witnesses who testified that the slogan on Mr. Tong’s flag, a popular chant by anti-government protesters in 2019, meant different things to different people. As a result, the crowd could have cheered Mr. Tong for reasons that the defendant didn’t necessarily agree with.

“There were a lot of disgruntled people who were demonstrating against the government, the police,” Clive Grossman, Mr. Tong’s attorney, told the court. “They see someone who is obviously ‘with them’ riding on a motorcycle… They think, ‘He’s on our side.’ But ‘our side’ could be a hundred different things.”

In their ruling, the three judges found that the “Liberate Hong Kong” slogan was a “political agenda,” that the defendant knew it was secessionist, and that by displaying the words, he intended to incite others to “separate Hong Kong from China.” What’s more, Mr. Tong’s refusal to stop for police, and the subsequent crash, caused “grave harm to society ... with a view to intimidating the public in order to pursue [a] political agenda.” 

An electoral system makeover

Even before the trial, the new security law had made clear that decades of demands and organizing to create a democratic Hong Kong after its handover from British rule in 1997 had ended in failure.

With leading critics in jail or exile, the government has restructured the electoral system, making it nearly impossible for Hong Kong’s opposition to win more than a token number of seats. Candidates who seek office will be screened for political loyalties by a pro-Beijing committee of political elites. More than 200 district councilors elected during the 2019 protests recently resigned amid rumors that they could be disqualified – and forced to repay their salaries and office expenses.

Many political parties are barely hanging on, as members quit for fear of being labeled security threats. Future elections will resemble a show “to demonstrate to the others that Hong Kong is still a city where we still have elections,” says Debby Chan, one of the councilors who resigned.

Every pro-democracy activist worries about arrest, she adds. “We are always prepared for the worst.”

Chief Executive Carrie Lam and members of her administration have repeatedly said that the law was needed to bring order and stability to Hong Kong after a year of mass protests and sometimes violent clashes with police. The protests were triggered by a proposed bill that would have allowed for the extradition of criminal suspects to other jurisdictions, including China, that weren’t covered by Hong Kong’s existing treaties. Residents feared China would have demanded the extradition of dissidents and critics to be put on trial there.

During dayslong sieges, protesters hurled homemade explosives and bricks at police who fired tear gas and rubber bullets. Civil servants rallied against the government. Now they have been required to pledge their fealty to Beijing.

The security law worked to improve the city’s “electoral system, halting chaos and restoring order in Hong Kong and implementing ‘patriots administering Hong Kong,’” said John Lee, the secretary for administration on the law’s first anniversary. “While national security is protected, our citizens continue to enjoy freedoms under the law, including freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of demonstration, and more.”

A media tycoon is jailed

Scholars say the security law has become a tool for the government to suppress the political opposition, muffle free speech online and in print, and inject fear and apathy into society.

“The government will go to great lengths to turn any crime or mere behavior involving opposition into an [national security law] charge,” says Michael Davis, a legal scholar and former Hong Kong law professor. “It seems from observation that this reflects a zeal to please Beijing.”

Hong Kong’s freewheeling media has been among the targets of this zeal. Last December, the government charged pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai with collusion with foreign powers to undermine national security. His Apple Daily newspaper, which supported the pro-democracy protests, was forced to close in June after banks were warned not to extend credit to him. Mr. Lai is now serving a 14-month prison sentence after a separate conviction for illegal assembly. 

“In one year, the national security law has put Hong Kong on a rapid path to becoming a police state and created a human rights emergency for the people living there,” says Yamini Mishra, Asia-Pacific regional director at Amnesty International.

A letter from

Washington

‘You held the line’: Police heroism in spotlight at Jan. 6 hearing

Can the U.S. rediscover a commitment to the truth? That’s what four police officers – who were beaten, repeatedly shocked, and crushed as they defended the Capitol Jan. 6 – pleaded for in poignant testimony today.

Noelle

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When Capitol Police Officer Daniel Hodges got jammed in a doorway trying to push back a crowd of rioters on Jan. 6, his gas mask ripped off and screaming for help, little did he know that two members of Congress were hiding in a small office just 40 paces behind him.

Today, Rep. Stephanie Murphy got to thank him in person.

“You were our last line of defense,” said the Florida Democrat, who was escorted to safety while Officer Hodges prevented protesters from advancing further into the tunnel. “So, just a really heartfelt thank-you.”

Over the course of an emotional hearing Tuesday, the first held by a new House committee investigating the causes and events of Jan. 6, both officers and lawmakers teared up as they spoke of the heroism it took to defend the Capitol. Though vastly outnumbered, the police were able to push out protesters who had breached a lower entrance, preventing hundreds if not thousands more from entering the building as Congress met to certify the results of the 2020 election.

“You held the line,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, one of nine members of the Democrat-run committee. “Now we’ve got to hold the line.”

‘You held the line’: Police heroism in spotlight at Jan. 6 hearing

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Chip Somodevilla/AP
U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell, from left, Washington Metropolitan Police Department Officer Michael Fanone, Washington Metropolitan Police Department Officer Daniel Hodges, and U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Harry Dunn are sworn in before the House select committee hearing on the Jan. 6 attack on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 27, 2021.

When Capitol Police Officer Daniel Hodges got jammed in a doorway trying to push back a crowd of rioters on Jan. 6 – a moment of agony that later went viral on YouTube – little did he know that two members of Congress were hiding in a small office just 40 paces behind him. 

Today, Rep. Stephanie Murphy got to thank him in person. 

“You were our last line of defense,” said the Florida Democrat who was escorted to safety while Officer Hodges, helpless as he was, physically prevented protesters from advancing further into the tunnel. “So just a really heartfelt thank-you.”

In a relatively intimate hearing room bedecked by chandeliers, Ms. Murphy and the eight other members of a new Jan. 6 congressional committee listened from behind an ornate wooden dais to testimony from four police officers who defended the Capitol that day. After raising their right hands and solemnly swearing to tell the whole truth, they recounted how they and their fellow officers had put their lives on the line as they faced fellow Americans calling them traitors and bludgeoning them with everything from hockey sticks and rebar to flagpoles and even their own riot shields. Though vastly outnumbered, the police were able to push out rioters who had breached a lower entrance to the Capitol and hold their ground, preventing hundreds if not thousands more from entering the building where Congress had been meeting to certify the results of the 2020 election. 

“You guys may individually feel a little broken ... but you guys won,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard and one of two Republicans appointed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after GOP leadership boycotted the committee. “You know, democracies are not defined by our bad days. We’re defined by how we come back from our bad days.”

Against a backdrop of partisan fighting over how best to get to the bottom of what happened on Jan. 6, the hearing put a spotlight on the police officers’ courage and determination, leaving at least several lawmakers in tears. Other members of Congress in the audience, some of whom were visibly trembling during the hearing, came up afterward to embrace them. 

“You held the line,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, one of nine members of the Democrat-run committee. “Now we’ve got to hold the line.”

At one point, the committee played video footage from an officer who was dragged into the crowd while trying to defend the lower entrance. 

Officer Michael Fanone, a plainclothes police officer focused on drug traffickers and violent criminals for the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department, donned his uniform for the first time in a decade on Jan. 6 when he heard the scared tone of Capitol Police officers on the radio. When he arrived, he could tell the frontline officers were beat.

“Who needs a break?” he asked the officers who had been fighting to hold off the crowd for hours. No one volunteered. 

But it wasn’t until he reached the lower West Terrace tunnel entrance that he realized the full gravity of the situation. 

He described to the committee seeing “terrorists” dressed in Kevlar vests and helmets, some with gas masks – something he realized he should have brought. Many were dressed in clothing with slogans like “Make America Great Again” or “Donald Trump 2020.” 

He and others were able to push them back behind the initial threshold, but then he suddenly found himself pulled off the police line and into the crowd. He testified that he heard people yelling, “Kill him with his own gun,” and saw a rioter repeatedly lunging for it. They beat him and stunned him with a taser at the base of his skull several times – until he appealed to their humanity, yelling out that he had kids. 

“Fortunately, a few did step in and intervene on my behalf,” he said, noting they assisted him back toward the tunnel entrance as he briefly lost consciousness. 

Elsewhere, Sgt. Aquilino Gonell of the Capitol Police, who had spent 545 days in Iraq as an Army soldier, testified he was more afraid on Jan. 6 than he ever had been on his deployment, where he faced frequent insurgent fire, roadside bombs, and the perpetual risk of ambushes. Rioters were calling him a traitor, and shouting that he should be executed, he testified.

It wasn’t until nearly 4:30 p.m., after giving CPR to one of the rioters to try to save her life, that he finally had a chance to let his own family know he was alive. He didn’t get home until 4 a.m., and didn’t manage to sleep much before heading back to the Capitol several hours later – against his wife’s pleas.

As an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who has sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution several times in his career, he underscored that his motive was to protect everyone in the Capitol, regardless of political affiliation. 

“When dispatch sends a call, we don’t ask, ‘Hey, by the way, before I treat you, before I take care of you, are you a Republican, Democrat, or independent?” he said. “We just respond.”

But in pointed criticism of former President Donald Trump, GOP leadership, and their supporters, the police officers also expressed their disappointment that their fellow citizens and lawmakers were downplaying the events of Jan. 6. 

“I feel that I went to hell and back to protect them and the people in this room, but too many are now telling me that hell doesn’t exist, or that hell wasn’t actually that bad,” said Officer Fanone, who was told he suffered a heart attack during the melee. “The indifference shown to my colleagues was disgraceful!” he shouted, slamming his hand down on the table, startling many in the room. 

“Telling the truth shouldn’t be hard,” added the fourth police officer, Harry Dunn, who was called the N-word over and over by the protesters – a memory that he says still hurts.

“Fighting on Jan. 6 – that was hard,” he said, adding that it’s been hard to show up every day since, especially since the protective fence around the Capitol came down recently. He asked lawmakers to show the same kind of courage. “Us four officers, we would do Jan. 6 all over again. We wouldn’t stay home because we knew it was going to happen. ... So what I’m asking of you is to get to the bottom of what happened.”

Wish we were there: Athletes’ parents work around Olympics ban

Adaptability may be the name of the game for Tokyo Olympics – and not only for the athletes. Parents are finding new ways to support their Olympians.

Noelle
Carl Recine/Reuters
Megan Kalmoe (right) and Tracy Eisser of the United States compete in rowing, women's pair, at the Sea Forest Waterway during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, July 24, 2021.

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This year’s Olympics don’t have spectators in the stands, but most of the athletes have a long list of supporters cheering for them from a distance – with parents often at the top of that list.

It’s not the same as being there in person, but “we’re doing the best we can,” says Caryl Kohler, mother of Kara Kohler, an Olympic rower. Caryl Kohler and her family filmed a cheering video and have sent letters of encouragement – and a signed banner to be delivered by the U.S. Olympic Committee. 

Parents of Paralympic athletes are in the same boat. Dani Hansen, also a rower, won silver in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. Her mother, Sharon Hansen, can’t be with her in Tokyo, but she’s doing her best to meet her daughter’s needs.

“I just straight up ask her: Do you want me to talk? Do you want me to be quiet? You want to talk about something else? Do you want me to just listen?” says Ms. Hansen. 

Her daughter always tells her what she needs. 

Ms. Hansen always tells her daughter she’s proud.

Wish we were there: Athletes’ parents work around Olympics ban

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Olympic rower Megan Kalmoe has turned her mother, Mary Martin, into a globetrotter. For more than 15 years, Ms. Martin has followed her daughter across the United States, on nearly 20 international trips and to three Olympic Games. At every major regatta, she’s been there. 

That streak ended this year.

As a precaution during the pandemic, the 2020 Tokyo Games are not allowing family members to attend in person. Among a host of other lockdown measures, including a blanket ban on spectators, that one rule may not seem especially burdensome. But community and support are fundamental Olympic values, and families are central to their expression. 

Trite as it may sound, athletes don’t make it to the Olympics alone. Their first Olympic village is their hometown. Parents are their original trainers, coaches, and chauffeurs. Often, they remain each athlete’s most vocal cheerleaders.

So this year, facing thousands of miles of distance, parents like Ms. Martin are finding workarounds. She’s been texting her daughter for weeks, always trying to sense what will help most in the moment. When the chance comes, they get on the phone. 

“Sometimes we talk and I get an earful,” she says. “That’s my job as a parent. Sometimes I can offer advice, and sometimes I just listen.”

Olympians’ ability to persevere is well documented and well praised, particularly during Games struggling to persevere themselves. Yet this year the same challenges forcing athletes to adapt are forcing attentive parents to do the same. They may not be in Tokyo, but through emojis, texts, calls, letters, and long spells of listening, their support is still reaching the Games. 

“We’re doing the best we can,” says Caryl Kohler, mother of Kara Kohler, another Olympic rower.

Two sports and twilight training 

Before Kara Kohler began rowing in college, she wanted one day to qualify for the Games as a swimmer. Ahead of childhood swim meets, she used to watch famous Olympic races and wear a swim cap with the five rings. For her mother, that meant waking up for twilight training sessions, shuttling her daughter to different meets, and then, later, learning her daughter’s entirely new sport. 

Carl Recine/Reuters
Kara Kohler of the United States competes in the single sculls quarterfinal at the Sea Forest Waterway during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, July 24, 2021.

“There’s a lot of ups and downs,” says Ms. Kohler. “There’s a lot of support.” 

Ms. Martin’s daughter was also a multisport athlete in high school, but they lived in a small Wisconsin town, and it was hard to see beyond local competition. “Being a parent of an Olympian was not ever really on my radar,” she says. 

When it happened, though, she was all in. 

Traveling to Beijing for her daughter’s first Olympics was a tutorial on how different it is to watch the Games in person. Transportation can be confusing and food, scarce. The events are spread out, the tickets are limited, and the anxiety is pronounced.

When the race begins and the rest of the audience roars, Ms. Martin instead goes quiet. She scans the large television screen or listens to the announcers, while waiting to catch a glimpse of the one boat that matters most to her. 

“It’s very nerve-wracking,” she says. 

Shifting to remote support 

But an easy cure for nerves is support.

On Independence Day, Ms. Martin and her family, dressed in American flag gear, sent a video chanting “USA!” Ms. Kohler and her family filmed a cheering video of their own and have sent letters of encouragement – and a signed banner to be delivered by the U.S. Olympic Committee. 

It’s not the same as being there in person, they acknowledge, but part of parenting an Olympian is trusting her to adapt without them. 

For Sharon Hansen, that’s been a lifelong lesson. 

Her daughter Dani was born with a condition that limits mobility in her left arm, but Dani Hansen hasn’t viewed it as a disability. “She always just found a way to do things,” says Ms. Hansen. 

A multisport athlete in high school, Dani Hansen found rowing in college – and then found out she was really good at it. In 2014, family and friends from her small town of Patterson, California, raised money for a plane ticket to Boston, where the U.S. Paralympic rowing team was holding tryouts. She made the team and later competed at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, winning silver. 

Ahead of this year’s games, hundreds of people from Patterson said they’re writing her letters. Her mother has already sent two, in addition to text messages, emojis shared like inside jokes, and a call whenever possible.

“I just straight up ask her: Do you want me to talk? Do you want me to be quiet? You want to talk about something else? Do you want me to just listen?” says Ms. Hansen. 

Her daughter always tells her what she needs. 

Ms. Hansen always tells her daughter she’s proud.

At the time this article was published, Megan Kalmoe and Tracy Eisser had finished second in the coxless pair repechage, and Kara Kohler had placed second in her single sculls quarterfinal. Both boats will be moving on to the semifinals.

A push to get India’s folk musicians heard – and paid

Folk music is a rich reflection of India’s cultures. And it’s no relic – though the music industry sometimes treats it as one. This organization aims to keep tradition alive, by helping artists make a living. 

 

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Courtesy of Anahad Foundation
Grammy-winner Gael Hedding, who helped the Anahad Foundation develop the "Backpack Studio," sets up recording equipment for Dholru folk performers.

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When Abhinav Agrawal was studying at Berklee College of Music, his research turned up a startling figure. Seventy percent of India’s musicians practice folk, he realized, but they earn only 2% of the industry’s revenues. Many dream of recording, but production facilities are out of reach.

That statistic sparked his passion to help traditional musicians earn a sustainable income. And once he returned home to India, he founded the nonprofit Anahad Foundation to try and bring unsung artists to the urban mainstream.

“I wanted to empower [artists] so that their music could become a sustainable source of income for them,” Mr. Agrawal says – to close the gap between their genre's significance, and its visibility. 

“Folk songs are a form of oral history and represent our culture, and yet, they are somewhat forgotten outside of rural areas,” says Rakshat Hooja, who directs another music nonprofit that promotes the folk heritage of Rajasthan.

Anahad’s team travels to musicians they have heard of through word-of-mouth, and records using a portable “Backpack Studio,” created with the help of Grammy- and Latin Grammy-winner Gael Hedding. Capable of running on battery for three days, it’s a boon in villages that have erratic electricity, or none.

A push to get India’s folk musicians heard – and paid

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In the summer of 2019, folk musician Salim Khan travelled nearly 500 miles from his hometown, the “Golden City” of Jaisalmer, India, to do something he’d never done before: write a song.

Mr. Khan is founder of the folk group Jaisalmer Beats, a quintet whose members are Mirasi: Muslim communities known for playing a stringed instrument called the kamaicha. For generations, they’ve sung religious songs of praise in Rajasthan – a vast western state known for its deserts and sandstone architecture.

He was headed near New Delhi, to collaborate with the Punjabi pop duo Ahen and Gurmoh. “I contributed my thoughts and then we strung together the lyrics step by step,” he says. Over the next five days, the musicians recorded “Jhingur,” Hindi for “cricket”: a melodious track about a man pining for his beloved.

Suddenly, Mr. Khan’s visibility was catapulted beyond Rajasthan, and invitations for paid shows outside his state began arriving. “I received a lot of appreciation for the song from across the country,” he says. “I felt like I got my place among musicians.”

“Jhingur” was born at a residency conducted by the nonprofit Anahad Foundation, which aims to bring the music of unsung folk artists to the urban mainstream. Seventy percent of India’s musicians practice folk, but they earn only 2% of the industry’s revenues, according to research that founder Abhinav Agrawal did during a master’s degree at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Those glaring figures drive his passion for showcasing folk artists to a wider audience, and helping them make a living. Though their tradition is a rich reflection of Indian cultures, many listeners today only hear the genre through movies, or adapted by indie bands. With greater support, Anahad hopes to sustain and even strengthen an important piece of the country’s musical heritage. 

Courtesy of Anahad Foundation
Musician Salim Khan, from Jaisalmer, India, participated in a residency hosted by the Anahad Foundation. The nonprofit aims to bring the music of unsung folk artists to the urban mainstream.

“Folk songs are a form of oral history and represent our culture, and yet, they are somewhat forgotten outside of rural areas,” says Rakshat Hooja, director of Jaipur Virasat Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes the folk heritage of Rajasthan. 

In addition to Anahad’s free residencies with established bands, the foundation helps artists create a digital portfolio on their website, complete with new music videos, and teaches them entrepreneurial skills. Today, the site lists groups that include more than 1,000 artists.

Empowering artists

Mr. Agrawal developed an interest in folk while learning classical music as a child in Bulandshahr, just east of New Delhi. His mentors were folk artists, and he was struck by their common dream of releasing records. “The feeling is that once your music is recorded, you become immortal,” he says. But production facilities were unaffordable – and remain out of reach for most folk musicians today.

Mr. Khan, for example, dropped out of school at the age of 8 or 9, as his parents could not afford to pay for education. Learning music from his father and elder brother, he experimented with his harmonium and morsing, a tiny percussion instrument, at the Jaisalmer Fort, whose 800-year-old sandstone walls are a hub for musicians. Mr. Khan grew up to sing professionally, but his income relied on tourist season and weddings – and agents who often pocket big commissions.

“Every year, before the end of the summer I start borrowing money to keep the home fires burning,” says Mr. Khan, father to two toddlers.

Courtesy of Anahad Foundation
The Jikri folk group of Mahaveer Singh Chahar has participated in Anahad Foundation programs. “I wanted to empower [artists] so that their music could become a sustainable source of income for them,” says the foundation's founder Abhinav Agrawal.

Back in 2011, when Mr. Agrawal was an undergraduate, he’d take a train to a new region every weekend to record local artists, and left them with a CD of their music. Many called to say they had sold the CD and wanted more. That’s when the thought of equipping artists to commercialize their music first crossed his mind. He registered Anahad in 2013, but didn’t feel he had the chops to run an organization until he received his master’s in music business. “I wanted to empower [artists] so that their music could become a sustainable source of income for them,” Mr. Agrawal says.

Today, he and his wife, lawyer Shuchi Roy, co-manage the foundation alongside a production head, and offer a fellowship for ethnomusicologists. To record musicians outdoors in their villages, Anahad has assembled a portable “Backpack Studio” with the help of Grammy- and Latin Grammy-winner Gael Hedding. Capable of running on battery for three days, it’s a boon in villages that have erratic electricity, or none.

The team doesn’t book shows for musicians, but its websites help producers contact artists directly to cut out middlemen, though Mr. Agrawal says only about 70% of artists use it proactively. 

“There is little understanding of copyright among folk musicians and an inability to fight even if they do,” says Ms. Roy. Since most deals by agents are made casually over the phone, she emphasizes to artists how important it is to put agreements in writing – “even a few lines on a plain sheet of paper or WhatsApp.” 

Deepening ties

In its early days, when Anahad approached folk artists, the organization’s members were treated as “outsiders” and turned away. But over the past few years, they’ve gained trust. Ms. Roy says she has helped more than 100 artists negotiate fair deals or push for timely payments, and in one case, helped an artist negotiate for royalties after another performer used his music without permission. Now many musicians reach out to Anahad themselves – including Punjabi folk group Rangle Sardar.

The quartet’s popularity shot up after the release of “Karam,” a song they composed with Indian pop-folk band When Chai Met Toast at an Anahad residency in 2019. “In Punjab, everyone now asks for the boys who sang ‘Karam,’” enthuses singer Maninder Brar. “We now get to quote our own price for shows.”

In India, “state governments usually promote a handful of folk musicians to attract tourists, while the rest are left behind,” says Mr. Hooja. “Anahad has gone to the grassroots and documented the work of fairly unknown musicians and given them an international reach.” 

Back in Rajasthan, members of Jaisalmer Beats use their free time to teach singing, instruments, and a bit of business sense to schoolboys. “We want young, educated children to learn music,” he says. “They will grow up to write their own songs, manage their own business, and also carry our legacy forward.”

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Tech that preserves languages and cultures

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The world’s estimated 7,000 languages are precious vessels that hold unique cultural and historical knowledge. But as many as half are in danger of being lost. They continue to disappear at a rapid clip.

Even though the high-tech world of computer coding has digital languages of its own, talk among those who work in that world most likely requires English as a lingua franca. That has become yet another tug away from local languages.

But more and more, that same digital technology is being used to help preserve endangered languages.

The new Google app Woolaroo uses artificial intelligence to renew interest in disappearing languages, from Yugambeh (spoken by some aboriginal people in Australia) to Nawat (western El Salvador), Louisiana Creole, and Tamazight (North Africa and the Sahara). If the user takes a photo of an object, Woolaroo will produce the name of it in one of 10 threatened languages. 

As digital technology helps to bring the world closer together, it needn’t act only as a homogenizing force. It can also be used to preserve what makes human societies around the globe unique.

Tech that preserves languages and cultures

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Jonas Walzberg/dpa via AP
A woman holds a poster with a photo of a Holocaust survivor and an inscription in Yiddish during a vigil, in Hamburg, Germany, July 10, 2021.

In Cherokee, a Native American language, no word exists to say “goodbye” (“I’ll see you again” comes closest). But the delight experienced when looking at an indescribably cute kitten or human baby has its own special word: oo-kah-huh-sdee.

The world’s estimated 7,000 languages are precious vessels that hold unique cultural and historical knowledge. But as many as half are in danger of being lost. They continue to disappear from the world at a rapid clip.

“The loss of a language translates into the loss of an entire system of knowledge, communication, and beliefs,” points out Bolanle Arokoyo, a linguist at the University of Ilorin in Nigeria in a piece in Discover Magazine. Her country has some 500 known languages.

The world’s major languages, such as English, Mandarin, Hindi, and Spanish, continue to crowd out local tongues for a variety of reasons. Gaining access to jobs or education usually means learning the dominant language. In some cases governments have suppressed the speaking of local languages in the name of national unity.

Even though the high-tech world of computer coding has digital languages of its own, talk among those who work in that world most likely requires English as a lingua franca. That has become yet another tug away from local languages.

But more and more, that same digital technology is being used to help preserve endangered languages.

The new Google app Woolaroo uses artificial intelligence to renew interest in disappearing languages, from Yugambeh (spoken by some aboriginal people in Australia) to Nawat (western El Salvador), Louisiana Creole, and Tamazight (North Africa and the Sahara). If the user takes a photo of an object, Woolaroo will produce the name of it in one of 10 threatened languages. 

Although users can’t learn to speak the language this way (since Woolaroo only responds with nouns) it can be a fun method of satisfying curiosity and may lead to a deeper investigation.

Duolingo, a language learning app, offers instruction in some 40 languages, including many of the world’s most popular. But it also offers Scottish Gaelic, Navajo, Native Hawaiian, and most recently Yiddish.

Once widely spoken throughout central and Eastern Europe among Jewish populations, Yiddish now has fewer than 1 million speakers.

To boost interest in disappearing languages, activists around the world are using technology as well as more conventional techniques, including cultural events, contests, and language retreats.

One of the most successful has been “language nesting,” in which elders teach a language to children through songs, stories, and conversations. The technique has helped save Maori, spoken among Polynesians in New Zealand and Australia, and Native Hawaiian from being lost. Hawaiian had shrunk to about 2,000 speakers but today has more than 18,000 who can speak it.

As digital technology helps to bring the world closer together, it needn’t act only as a homogenizing force. It can also be used to preserve what makes human societies around the globe unique.

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.

What we most need

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When times get tough, learning more about the kingdom of God may not seem like a priority. But doing exactly that opens the door to solutions that meet our needs, as a man experienced firsthand after he hit rock bottom.

What we most need

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

There was a time in my experience when I hit rock bottom. I felt I had lost everything. I was angry with God, because I thought I had done everything right – been obedient to the Ten Commandments, tried to treat others like I wanted to be treated. But so many things weren’t working out. I felt as if God weren’t delivering on the things I needed, and that I wasn’t being rewarded for the good life I had been trying to live.

At some point during my regular study of the Bible and the textbook of Christian Science, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, I came across this statement: “What we most need is the prayer of fervent desire for growth in grace, expressed in patience, meekness, love, and good deeds” (Science and Health, p. 4).

That was a real game changer. On the surface, the answer to what we most need might seem pretty obvious – food, water, clothing, and shelter. But Christian Science teaches that there’s a whole other dimension to consider here, the dimension Christ Jesus revealed to us.

In some of his most important teachings, recorded in the Bible as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught his students not to focus too much on what food they would eat or what clothes they would wear. Instead, he said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).

Jesus’ answer to what we most need is quite different from what the physical senses suggest. As we seek the kingdom of God and divine righteousness, we discover that our most fundamental need is to express the joy and goodness God has already given each of us. That’s not to say we should go without the meeting of all our basic human needs, including food, water, and clothing, but that our mental starting point makes a big difference in our experience, including in having these needs taken care of.

The kingdom of God, Jesus said, isn’t something we see with our eyes, but is within each of us. Science and Health says of Jesus, “He plunged beneath the material surface of things, and found the spiritual cause” (p. 313). Jesus’ entire ministry was spent showing his followers the effects of pursuing the understanding of the kingdom of God, who cares for all of His spiritual offspring. This understanding empowers us to demonstrate God’s limitless care.

What I most needed, I realized, wasn’t about getting something I didn’t have. Rather, it was about expressing, or giving, what I was capable of and already did have: patience, meekness, love, goodness. These and other qualities like them emanate from God, who created each of us as the spiritual reflection of His purity and love. Another statement in Science and Health amplifies this theme: “Let unselfishness, goodness, mercy, justice, health, holiness, love – the kingdom of heaven – reign within us, and sin, disease, and death will diminish until they finally disappear” (p. 248).

As I thought more deeply about all this, I felt I was being shown that God’s presence had been there all along, leading me to realize that what I most needed wasn’t “out there” somewhere, but present, here and now. The peace and assurance I needed were already within me as God’s child, constituted of spiritual qualities that are forever here in infinite supply, always available to be expressed.

As I began to more consciously express qualities such as patience, meekness, unselfishness, goodness, love – truly, the kingdom of heaven within all of us – my circumstances changed. My human needs were abundantly met, and have consistently been met ever since.

What we most need isn’t about getting; it’s about giving of the qualities that God is forever revealing within each of us, evidencing the kingdom of heaven.

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Fast start

David J. Phillip/AP
Germany's Damian Wierling dives in at the start of a 100-meter freestyle heat at the Summer Olympics on July 27, 2021, in Tokyo.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Thanks for spending time with us today. Come back tomorrow for a trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where summer school is being re-imagined to include not just academic lessons but activities like gardening and even swordplay.

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