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Monitor Daily Podcast

November 23, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

‘The magic of Friendsgiving’

Trudy Palmer
Deputy Daily Editor

Inviting a friend or coworker to the family Thanksgiving dinner is nothing new.

You may even have heard about Wanda Dench who, six years ago, mistakenly texted a Thanksgiving invitation to Jamal Hinton, a perfect stranger. They quickly figured out the error, but she made good on the invitation, and he accepted. The two, usually with family from both sides, have spent Thanksgiving together ever since and even have occasional get-togethers in between.

That’s truly lovely, but it’s different than Friendsgiving.

According to Merriam-Webster, the word Friendsgiving first appeared around 2007, finally making it into the dictionary in 2020. In the intervening years, businesses sought a piece of the pie, pun intended, from Taco Bell’s Friendsgiving Feast to Betty Crocker’s menu recommendations

But the Friendsgiving my 20-something friend Serkalem celebrates each year has nothing to do with promoting a brand. It’s also “less engrained in the Colonial stigma” than the traditional holiday, she says.

Instead, it’s about being “grateful for your friend group,” she explains. On the one hand, you’re gathering with friends before they take off for the holiday. On the other, you’re making sure those with no place to go still get a Thanksgiving-like experience, she adds.

I love that spirit of looking out for one another – and embracing others. When she arrived at her Friendsgiving feast last Sunday, Serkalem knew only a few of the people there. Not so, by the end of the night. 

“The magic of Friendsgiving,” she says, “is coming to the table and introducing yourself.”

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After Rittenhouse: What an era of armed protest means for America

The acquittal of teenager Kyle Rittenhouse highlights twin trends: the rise of armed protest and the strength of self-defense as a legal argument. And there’s nuance as these trends span racial lines.

Trudy

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The Rev. Jonathan Barker, a pastor in Kenosha, Wisconsin, has noticed more people carrying guns at protests. “Everybody’s armed up,” he says.

Worries about that were evident on Sunday at a protest there in response to Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal for killing two men and injuring another during social unrest in Kenosha last year.  At the weekend protest, a leader introduced a new set of hand signals to guide protesters: go, stop, and hit the ground.

Studies have found that the presence of firearms makes violence at protests more likely. Given that, history suggests armed Black protesters should be especially concerned. “Homicides with a white perpetrator and a black victim are ten times more likely to be ruled justified than cases with a black perpetrator and a white victim,” the Urban Institute found.

But changing protest dynamics could push the country toward not only more armed protests but also new views of self-defense. A few recent verdicts suggest that Black defendants are winning self-defense claims that historically would have turned against them.

Meanwhile, some Black Americans are exercising constitutional rights that not long ago seemed out of reach. In Kenosha this weekend, a Black father-daughter duo carrying military-style rifles provided security for social justice protesters.

After Rittenhouse: What an era of armed protest means for America

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Paul Sancya/AP
Protesters argue outside the Kenosha County Courthouse, Nov. 19, 2021, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges after pleading self-defense in the deadly Kenosha shootings that became a flashpoint in the nation's debate over guns, vigilantism, and racial injustice.

After the acquittal on Friday of Kyle Rittenhouse for killing two protesters and injuring another during social upheaval in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year, folks once again took to the streets here in Kenosha, but the numbers were far fewer.

One group of marchers peacefully followed Mr. Rittenhouse’s footsteps from the night of the killing, as laid out in a map shown to the jury. 

While the Rittenhouse verdict upheld a heavily armed teenager’s right to kill those his presence provoked to violence, it set no legal precedent.

But such verdicts “do help set a cultural norm,” says Keith Findley, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Rev. Jonathan Barker, pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Kenosha, has noticed more people carrying guns at protests. “Everybody’s armed up,” he says. On Sunday, in response to the uptick in arms, one protest leader introduced a new set of hand signals to guide protesters: go, stop, and hit the ground.

Across the country, there’s a surge in gun purchases, including by nontraditional groups, as people sense a rise in vigilantism. But the idea of self-defense is also evolving. A few recent verdicts suggest that Black defendants are winning self-defense claims that historically would have turned against them.

“Whose protest is it ... [and] what is the relationship between guns and protest? We are now having that conversation in a more explicit way,” says University of Arizona sociologist Jennifer Carlson.

Who’s protecting whom?

New sets of Americans staking their own protection and defense claims are seen by some, like Mr. Barker, as a sobering, potentially dangerous development. Studies have found that the presence of firearms makes violence at protests more likely.

Given that, history suggests armed Black protesters should be especially concerned. “Homicides with a white perpetrator and a black victim are ten times more likely to be ruled justified than cases with a black perpetrator and a white victim,” the Urban Institute found.

“We also know from social psychology that people of color carrying guns are more likely to be seen as a threat, regardless of the legal status of their guns,” says Dr. Carlson, who is also the author of “Citizen-Protectors.”

But changing protest dynamics could push the country in a new direction. Following Mr. Rittenhouse’s footsteps – both literally and philosophically – is a reminder to at least some Americans that their problems may be less about “the other side” and more about fundamental societal and institutional injustices that affect a broad range of Americans in distinct, but sometimes similar, ways.

“Kyle Rittenhouse and Black Lives Matter have one important thing in common, and it’s something that could be harnessed for effective political change: They both feel like they have been unjustly treated by the criminal justice system,” says Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment scholar at the UCLA School of Law. “People may [also] rightly ask, ‘If police aren’t going to protect me, who is going to protect me?’”

Kenosha finds itself at the heart of these emerging dynamics.

Once a fishing village on the shores of Lake Michigan – it was first known as Kenozia, or “place of the pike” – the city of 100,000 is today home to the underwear knitter Jockey and massive Amazon warehouses. Median earnings here lag about $10,000 behind national averages. Two-thirds of residents are white. Some 18% of its residents – most of them white – live in poverty,

“The community will always be divided. But we have to live together,” says Anna Moldenhauer, a vendor at the Kenosha Public Market.

Shifting views of self-defense

The mostly white Rittenhouse jury heard weeks of testimony and complicated legal theories. But it is the jury’s collective wisdom – or, to some, recklessness – that is resonating across the country now.

“What is reasonable is defined by individual juries, who bring their lived experiences, values, and cultural norms to the task,” Mr. Findley, the Madison law professor, writes in an email.

For some, the verdict affirms and expands an already grave concern among people of color. “We have to live in fear not only of the police, but of white supremacists as well. It just gives people a sense of entitlement to do whatever they want to do,” says Elizabeth Webb, a social justice activist in Kenosha. 

Richard Mertens
Elizabeth Webb, a community activist, stands outside her home in Uptown, a neighborhood that was a center of unrest in Kenosha in August 2020. She expressed concern about the Rittenhouse verdict, saying, “It just gives people a sense of entitlement to do whatever they want to do.”

The Rittenhouse jury verdict was also a reminder for some of a long history in the United States of differing abilities to claim self-defense.

“If we decide to take matters into our own hands, Black and brown people, we know we’re going to be prosecuted to the full sense of the law,” says Ms. Webb.

Yet juries have been more nuanced of late.

“Stand your ground” laws came to the fore in Sanford, Florida, in the George Zimmerman trial in 2013. The argument that his victim, Trayvon Martin, fought back in self-defense against an armed adult pursuer didn’t prevail. The jury instead bought Mr. Zimmerman’s claim.

But a few years later, a different jury took another view of a similar case. Michael Drejka, a white man, killed a Black man named Markeis McGlockton after being pushed to the ground. A Clearwater, Florida, jury found Mr. Drejka’s purported fear of serious bodily injury unreasonable. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

And on the same day the Rittenhouse verdict was announced, a Vero Beach, Florida, jury acquitted a Black man named Andrew Coffee on murder charges. In 2017, Mr. Coffee, a felon, had opened fire on sheriff’s deputies conducting a drug raid on his house. Authorities charged Mr. Coffee with the death of his girlfriend, who was hit 10 times when deputies returned fire. Mr. Coffee claimed self-defense, thinking he was being burgled. The jury agreed.

Looking ahead, Chrystul Kizer, a young Black Kenoshan, has been allowed by an appeals court to raise a self-defense claim in her upcoming murder trial for allegedly killing a white man in 2018. The claim is based on a new Wisconsin law aimed at protecting those being sex-trafficked.

What has hampered self-defense claims by people of color in the past are prejudices in some cases baked into otherwise neutral-seeming law, says Harvard historian Caroline Light.

In such cases, she says, minority “victims who use lethal self-defense against abusers [watch as] their vulnerability gets carved out of the evidence that is presented.”

Ms. Kizer’s trial will test that pattern.

Mark Hertzberg/The Kenosha News/ZUMA Wire/Newscom
Chrystul Kizer speaks with Public Defender Jennifer Bias after her status hearing in Kenosha County Circuit Court on June 25, 2021. Ms. Kizer has been allowed by an appeals court to raise a self-defense claim in her upcoming murder trial for allegedly killing a white man in 2018. The claim is based on a new Wisconsin law aimed at protecting those being sex-trafficked.

The right to protest – armed

Meanwhile, some Black Americans are experimenting with exercising constitutional rights that not long ago seemed out of reach.

In Kenosha last weekend, a Black father-daughter duo carrying military-style rifles provided security for social justice protesters. And as a case in Brunswick, Georgia, wound down against the three men who killed unarmed jogger Ahmaud Arbery, armed Black militia members took up guard outside the courthouse. The judge denied a defense request for a mistrial.

Not long after the Rittenhouse verdict, as people milled about Kenosha, three young white men stood next to an American flag hanging from a platform. They said they were there to protect the flag. A construction worker who gave his name only as Tony said he agreed with the verdict. 

“I do think it was self-defense,” he said of Mr. Rittenhouse. 

But he also listened sympathetically to the arguments of Black activists around him.

“If they’re working toward equality, I think it’s good,” he told the Monitor. “It’s something I have to keep my eyes open for.”

Richard Mertens reported from Kenosha. Patrik Jonsson reported from Tybee Island, Georgia.

Why Russia’s troop surge near Ukraine may really be a message to the West

Russia’s troop buildup on Ukraine’s border has many in the West worried about invasion. But what’s really going on appears to be not about war, but about differing views and goals for NATO.

Trudy
Press Service of General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine/Reuters
A service member of the Ukrainian Armed Forces takes part in military drills near the border with Russian-annexed Crimea in Kherson region, Ukraine, Nov. 17, 2021. A Russian buildup of troops along the Ukraine-Russia border has many in the West on edge about the possibility of an invasion of Ukraine.

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The current Russian buildup of 100,000 troops and heavy equipment near Ukraine has raised the fears of some in Kyiv and Washington that a Russian invasion is imminent.

But analysts say that war is not Russia’s goal. Such a conflict would be prohibitively costly and intensely unpopular in Russia, which is home to the world’s biggest Ukrainian diaspora. Rather, the buildup is meant to back up Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demands for permanent guarantees that countries like Ukraine and other former Soviet states will not join NATO and will remain neutral.

Though Ukraine’s NATO application has been temporarily shelved, the alliance has consistently maintained that Ukraine will eventually join. For Moscow, the prospect of NATO forces only a three-day march away was never going to be acceptable.

“Western leaders have believed for decades that every country has the right to join NATO,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “It’s an ideological belief, not one based on serious strategic or military calculations. ... But Russia is back, it is deeply concerned about its strategic neighborhood, and it needs to make clear that Ukraine must not join NATO. Putin’s point is that we need Western leaders to take that seriously.”

Why Russia’s troop surge near Ukraine may really be a message to the West

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War clouds are gathering on the Russia-Ukraine border, as Moscow assembles a major force within striking distance of Kyiv for the second time this year.

The buildup of 100,000 troops and heavy equipment in Russia’s western military sector, near Ukraine, has raised the fears of some in Kyiv and Washington that an invasion is imminent.

Analysts say the threat is real and seems unlikely to be drawn down, as happened following what looks like a full dress rehearsal last spring, after the Biden administration agreed to a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin and scaled back planned naval exercises in the Black Sea.

But war is not Russia’s goal, they add. Such a conflict would be prohibitively costly and intensely unpopular in Russia, which is home to the world’s biggest Ukrainian diaspora and where many millions have family and close friends in Ukraine.

Rather, the buildup is meant to back up clear demands that Mr. Putin has delivered to Ukraine and the West. Analysts say that what Russia wants are permanent guarantees that countries like Ukraine and other former Soviet states will not join NATO and will remain neutral – as Finland was during the Cold War – as a new basis for regional stability. The aim of the troop deployments is to concentrate minds in Kyiv and the West about Moscow’s concerns, they say.

“Putin said that ‘tension is good,’ meaning that our Western counterparts should be kept alarmed, only then will they take Russia’s interests into account,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “It looks like Putin wants to open a new chapter, to finally get the perception on the Western side that NATO enlargement is dead.”

Russian security

In a speech to the Russian foreign ministry last week, Mr. Putin slammed the West for dismissing Russia’s “red lines” concerning Ukraine, and said that NATO’s arming and military integration with Ukraine must end. He complained that two decades of NATO expansion into the region has brought a major threat to Russia’s doorstep, and that Moscow will not tolerate Ukraine’s potential membership in what it sees as a hostile military alliance.

“It is imperative to push for serious long-term guarantees that ensure Russia’s security in this area, because Russia cannot constantly be thinking about what could happen there tomorrow,” Mr. Putin said.

Though Ukraine’s NATO application has been temporarily shelved, the alliance has consistently maintained that Ukraine will eventually join. For the Kremlin, which has seen all the Soviet Union’s former Warsaw Pact allies and the three ex-Soviet Baltic States already integrated into the alliance, the prospect of NATO forces only a three-day march from Moscow was never going to be acceptable, says Mr. Lukyanov.

“Western leaders have believed for decades that every country has the right to join NATO, and NATO should accept them without taking into account the strategic implications,” he says. “That’s something new in history, it’s totally opposed to classical strategic thinking, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western leaders embraced this idea that NATO should just expand, that it was somehow the right thing to do, and that no one should oppose that. It’s an ideological belief, not one based on serious strategic or military calculations.

“When NATO enlargement began, back in the ’90s, no one expected Russia to recover as quickly as it has. But Russia is back, it is deeply concerned about its strategic neighborhood, and it needs to make clear that Ukraine must not join NATO. Putin’s point is that we need Western leaders to take that seriously, and not just in words.”

Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives his annual state of the nation address in Moscow, April 21, 2021, amid a Russian troop buildup near the border with Ukraine. Although that surge was drawn down after the White House agreed to a summit with Mr. Putin, a similar drawdown does not seem forthcoming for the current Russian troop deployment.

Loggerheads between Moscow and Kyiv

Part of Mr. Putin’s frustration may be that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was elected largely on promises to bring peace to war-weary Ukraine, has made no headway in that area. Instead, Mr. Zelenskyy has appealed to the West to rapidly admit Ukraine into NATO and cancel Russia’s controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, demanded that the Minsk 2 peace accords be revised, and taken other positions that infuriate Moscow.

“Russia is disillusioned with Zelenskyy, and sees no hope any longer that he might start a dialogue about ending the conflict,” says Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, which is affiliated with the foreign ministry. “The mood in Moscow is that there is no point in talking with Kyiv, and we need to sort this out with Washington.”

The response in Kyiv seems surprisingly calm, perhaps thanks to the sense of permanent crisis since the Maidan revolution overthrew a Russia-friendly president and brought a pro-Western government to power in early 2014. That triggered Russia’s annexation of the mostly Russian-populated Crimean Peninsula and stimulated Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine’s east to rise against Kyiv. The resulting war, now grinding into its eighth year, has killed at least 14,000 people.

“It’s hard to measure the real threat,” says Nikolai Sungurovsky, a military expert at the independent Razumkov Centre in Kyiv. “The military threat is always there. Putin is trying to demonstrate that there can be no security solutions in Europe without Russia, but he is not willing to make any concessions about what concerns Ukraine.”

Vadim Karasyov, director of the independent Institute of Global Strategies in Kyiv, says, “I don’t see any direct threat of military invasion right now. Russian leaders might have their firm point of view, but they are not fools.”

No appetite for war in Russia

Though a low-level war has been going on for years, the Kremlin has largely kept its own involvement limited and mostly secret from the Russian people. Opinion polls in both countries consistently show that the populations have warm feelings toward each other, even if they hold each others’ leaders in low regard.

A February 2021 survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) found that 41% of Ukrainians had positive feelings toward Russia, while 42% felt negative. A similar poll conducted by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that 54% of Russians felt positive toward Ukraine, compared with 31% who did not.

“I often say that the attitude of Ukrainians toward Russians and Russia is one of unrequited love,” says Vladimir Paniotto, director of KIIS. “That doesn’t apply to Russian leaders, toward whom only 12% of Ukrainians have a positive attitude, while 76% feel negatively. Bear in mind that about half of Ukrainians have relatives in Russia, so they do mentally separate the population from the government.”

A similar reality exists in Russia, which has about 3 million Ukrainians – including about 1 million refugees from the war – and incalculably deep, long-standing, and intricate relations between people.

“This situation is so painful, because so many of us have friends and relatives in Ukraine,” says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a leading sociologist in Russia. “I, for one, have a Ukrainian husband, and regular contacts with his relatives in Ukraine. We are sick and tired of all these political tensions. We don’t trust our own politicians, and we certainly don’t want a war that arises out of all the lies being told on both sides. I don’t want to believe in a war. It would be incredibly unpopular with the Russian people.”

Mr. Kortunov agrees that Mr. Putin is playing a dangerous game by building up forces and flirting with military conflict to try and compel the West to discuss changes in Europe’s security order. But, like most Russians, he says actual open war with Ukraine is unthinkable.

“You have to ask yourself: Are Vladimir Putin and his team rational people? If you assume that they are – and, I assure you, yes they are – then we must acknowledge that Putin has no intention of starting a major war in the heart of Europe. Even if Russia were to win, the collateral damage would be immense, the costs too high to bear, and it would end any hope of reconciling with the West for a long time to come. Putin is concerned with his legacy, and he really wants to find some resolution of the Ukraine issue, but he is not going to start a war.”

Q&A

Airlines face ‘unruly passenger’ test as holiday travel rebounds

Holiday air travel can always be a test of patience. That’s taking on new meaning this year as unprecedented unruly passenger behavior coincides with a rebound in the number of travelers.

Trudy
Brendan McDermid/Reuters
A traveler walks through O'Hare International Airport in Chicago ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, Nov. 20, 2021.

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Long-distance trips to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving may look a little easier as some pandemic restrictions have eased since last fall. Air travel, which dropped off in 2020, is set to double over last year with approximately 4.2 million travelers expected to fly over the holiday, according to AAA.

But airline attendants are bracing themselves against unprecedented passenger disruptions, largely spurred by mask mandates. The Federal Aviation Administration has opened 991 investigations related to unruly flyers so far this year – more than three times as many as in any year since 1995, the earliest data available. 

It’s important to note that the vast majority of flyers behave. For example, during the week ending Nov. 7, for every 10,000 flights only 5.6 incidents of unruly passengers were reported. And the FAA and industry leaders have stepped up enforcement against unruly behavior.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, encourages having more patience for fellow passengers and flight crew. “Think about being a helper,” she says. “It’s very helpful when you create that spirit of kindness.” 

Airlines face ‘unruly passenger’ test as holiday travel rebounds

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Long-distance trips to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving may look a little easier as some pandemic restrictions have eased since last fall. Air travel, which dropped off in 2020, is set to double over last year with approximately 4.2 million travelers expected to fly over the holiday, according to AAA.

But airline attendants are bracing themselves against unprecedented passenger disruptions, largely spurred by mask mandates. More than 85% of flight attendants surveyed reported dealing with unruly flyers by the first half of this year, according to the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA). Some of those incidents – a flight attendant losing teeth from a passenger punch, another passenger arriving at his destination duct taped to his seat after assaulting three crew members – made national headlines. 

“These days I come to work anticipating disruptive behavior,” flight attendant and industry veteran Teddy Andrews told a congressional hearing this fall. “It feels like flight attendants have become the target for all kinds of frustration.”

Those on the frontlines are working to address the problems, partly through swift action against disruptions. Travelers can also help by packing plenty of patience when visiting family this holiday season.

So how widespread are passenger disruptions? 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has counted 5,240 “unruly passenger” reports from airlines in 2021 as of Nov. 16. Nearly 3 out of 4 incidents involve masks, which are federally mandated on planes and considered an effective measure in preventing the spread of COVID-19. 

The agency began tracking these cases in late 2020, so there’s no historical dataset for comparing 2021 to previous years, according to the FAA. However, the agency has opened 991 investigations related to unruly flyers so far this year – more than three times as many as in any year since 1995, the earliest data available. 

It’s important to note that the vast majority of flyers behave. For example, during the week ending Nov. 7, for every 10,000 flights only 5.6 incidents of unruly passengers were reported.

How are the FAA and advocates addressing air rage?

The safety of flight attendants, who work to ensure a safe flight for all passengers on board, is the primary concern in these incidents, say industry leaders. In January 2021, the FAA adopted a “zero-tolerance” policy toward unruly behavior, meaning it will pursue immediate legal action against anyone who interferes with a crew member. Violators can face fines of up to $37,000 per violation, and potential jail time. The FAA has referred several dozen of the severest cases to the Department of Justice to prosecute as criminal cases. 

Unions have also weighed in, calling for measures such as crew member self-defense training and adding more Federal Air Marshals. A number of flight attendants have been enrolling in a self-defense program that the Transportation Security Administration revived this year, after a pandemic pause.

Sara Nelson, president of the AFA union, praised the FAA-DOJ partnership in a Nov. 4 statement, along with a plea for a “list of violators who will be denied the freedom of flight on all airlines” to be shared among airlines. 

What are airlines doing to curb unsafe behavior?

The union isn’t alone in calling for a centralized list of unruly passengers. Delta Air Lines stated this fall that more than 1,600 passengers have been put on its own “no fly” list. The company wants competitors to follow suit. (This is different from a federal no-fly list tied to perceived national security or terrorism risks.)

“We’ve also asked other airlines to share their ‘no fly’ list to further protect airline employees across the industry. ... A list of banned customers doesn’t work as well if that customer can fly with another airline,” reads the Delta statement, issued in September. 

To avoid alcohol-related incidents, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines have suspended alcohol service temporarily. The FAA has also asked airports to remind passengers they can’t bring open containers of alcohol on flights, even if concessionaires offer customers drinks “to go.”

How can travelers contribute to more harmonious air travel?

If passengers see others act out, it’s best to notify flight attendants and not engage directly, says Laurie Garrow, president of the Airline Group of the International Federation of Operational Research Societies. Other tips for smoother travel involve planning ahead and anticipating longer lines at parking lots, check-in counters, and security. 

Overall, “just be a little patient,” says Dr. Garrow. Early-morning flights might be preferable, she adds, as delays tend to worsen later in the day.

Beyond logistics like arriving early and packing an extra mask, the AFA also stresses patience for fellow passengers and crew.

“Think about being a helper,” says Ms. Nelson by email, noting flight attendants are dealing with full planes. Given that it’s been a “small but persistent group” acting out, “it’s very helpful when you create that spirit of kindness.” 

Britain’s Bangladeshis aim to save Brick Lane – and their immigrant story

London’s Brick Lane embodies immigrant resilience. Now the Bangladeshi community that has called “Banglatown” home for decades fights a new foe in the form of gentrification and “hipsterfication.”

Trudy

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London’s Brick Lane, known colloquially as Banglatown since curry houses here boomed in the 1990s and drew visitors from around the globe, embodies Britain’s immigration story. Bangladeshis fleeing civil war at home settled into the area’s red-brick housing, following the path of earlier immigrants. Life was difficult and racism was a constant challenge, but they created a home that many remember lovingly. One elected councilor recalls his childhood in Brick Lane: “There was genuine love here in the East End of London,” he says. “It was the best time of my life.”

Now Brick Lane finds itself under threat again, this time from gentrification. But the community is leaning in on a history of adaptation and coexistence with protest, art, and public gatherings. “There’s something in the air, a weirdly poetic air,” says Sabina Begum, a British-born Bangladeshi whose father grew up in the area during the 1970s. “I’m transported back to Bangladesh. … Small fragments of Bangladesh live there. It’s completely different to other places.”

Britain’s Bangladeshis aim to save Brick Lane – and their immigrant story

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Shafi Musaddique
A Bangladeshi flag hangs on a pole while tourists walk through the famed Brick Lane with its "curry houses."

Abdal Ullah still remembers the waft of chapati and chai served from the cafes beneath his family apartment on Brick Lane, the East London community settled by Bangladeshi families in the late 1970s and ’80s.

He arrived from his native Bangladesh at age 4, part of a migration that ultimately turned this community of graffitied walls, rumbling freight trains, and old, red-brick housing into the largest Bangladeshi population outside Bengal. 

Life was not easy. The newcomers faced racism, overcrowding, and tenuous work conditions in nearby garment factories and warehouses, and many Britons wanted the immigrants gone. But for Mr. Ullah, who is now an elected councilor in London, Brick Lane imprinted his childhood memories with camaraderie and lessons of communal survival. “There was genuine love here in the East End of London,” he says. “It was the best time of my life.”

Now, as Brick Lane finds itself under threat – this time from rising rents, gentrification, and the economic fallout from the pandemic –  the community is mobilizing again. Housing rights activists recently lost an attempt to stop the development of a shopping mall in a local historic building, something activists say is the bell signaling the end of 400 years of migrant history in favor of corporate space.  But to preserve their unique community, they are leaning in on a history of adaptation and coexistence with protest, art, and public gatherings.

“There’s something in the air, a weirdly poetic air,” says Sabina Begum, a British-born Bangladeshi whose father grew up in the area during the 1970s. “I’m transported back to Bangladesh. … Small fragments of Bangladesh live there. It’s completely different to other places.”

“A haven for the downtrodden”

Brick Lane, known colloquially as “Banglatown” since curry houses here boomed in the 1990s and drew visitors from around the globe, embodies the immigration story in the United Kingdom. In the 1600s, the area was home to persecuted French Huguenots who settled here because it was close to the old Roman walls of London.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, Jewish and Irish migrants had moved into the densely populated area, filling up ramshackle slums. The Nazis targeted the area’s factories and docks in a heavy bombing campaign during World War II, and by the 1960s, most of the Jewish community had dispersed to London’s suburbs. That’s when Bangladeshis began to arrive, with the two groups coexisting for a time. 

Shafi Musaddique
Brick Lane Mosque, formerly a Jewish synagogue and a French church, is the only building in the United Kingdom to have housed all three Abrahamic religions. Its Latin motto, on the mosque facade, has remained since it was first built as a French church in 1743.

“When Jewish communities escaped the pogroms to settle in the East End, the Irish communities did the same. They too were escaping state violence,” says Fatima Rajina, an academic in British Bangladeshi history and member of the campaign to save historic Brick Lane. “The East End has always been a hub to find safety and became a haven for the downtrodden, the unwanted in society.” 

Nowhere is this coexistence exemplified better than one particular building: Brick Lane Mosque, which has stood for over 300 years. It is the only building in the U.K. to have housed all three Abrahamic faiths. A modern take on a minaret juts out from a stone building that was once a Jewish synagogue, and, before that, a French church. 

“When you stand by the mosque, at the top there is a sign in Latin which says ‘we are shadows,’” says Dr. Rajina. “It means people come and go; they establish themselves, and through their own choice – not through coercion – move on.”

That doesn’t mean Bangladeshis haven’t been coerced. Since their arrival in the 1960s, and then upon civil war after the breakup of Pakistan, they have been targeted by the British far-right, sometimes in rhetoric and sometimes violently. In 1978, Altab Ali, a young textile worker walking home from work, was stabbed to death. In 1999, a neo-Nazi militant detonated a nail bomb targeting London’s Black and Bangladeshi communities, injuring Muslim worshippers gathering for prayers. 

Through these attacks the Bangladeshi community forged a culture of political mobilization, often alongside other targeted minorities fighting systematic racism in British society. “Bangladeshis are a group of people that have always been the underdogs but always resisted through creativity, protest, and activism,” says Aminul Hoque, lecturer and presenter of the BBC documentary “A Very British History: British Bangladeshis.”

Now that activism is being reactivated, this time in the fight against gentrification. London’s British Bangladeshi population predominantly live in the eastern part of London – a community that is among the most deprived in the U.K. in terms of jobs and education. Yet it sits right next to the richest area, the City of London financial district, which has put pressure on rents for residents and local businesses. In 15 years, the number of curry shops in Banglatown has declined by 62%.  

Today, 24% of British Bangladeshis live in overcrowded and multigenerational households, by far the highest percentage of any ethnic group. That has put them at higher risk during the pandemic, which has also dealt a blow to local business. 

Courtesy of Saif Osman/Battle for Brick Lane
Protesters gather outside the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane, against plans to turn it into a shopping mall. Activists included local grassroots groups like Nijjor Manush that say gentrification is at a tipping point toward uprooting the local Bangladeshi community.

The latest loss to Brick Lane is the former Truman Brewery, a site of historical importance. Production ceased there some 25 years ago and the building is now used by 300 mainly small businesses. It has an estimated present-day value of £700 million (about $936 million). Activists from Nijjor Manush, a grassroots campaign group that in Bengali means “our people,” say the development project, which faces a partial demolishment and the creation of a five-story block with retail space, will further erode the area’s heritage.

Throughout the spring and summer, protesters unfurled banners reading “Stop the Truman Brewery Shopping Mall.” In September, at a memorial park that sits where Mr. Ali was killed in 1978, activists organized a protest, holding aloft an empty coffin and silently marching through Brick Lane to the Truman Brewery.

“Brick Lane has social and cultural capital. When people come here, they want to come to East London because it’s historic and urban,” says Saif Osmani, a visual artist and activist with Nijjor Manush who was at the protest against the Truman project. “All of that is under threat.” 

“Framing Banglatown”

Mr. Osmani expresses his fight for his community and its tenacity through his work in the “white dominated world” of visual arts, architecture, and housing. This summer, in an exhibition called “Framing Banglatown,” he organized a collection of prints that “capture the nexus” between the Bangladeshi community and the impact of “hipster culture” creeping in.  

“Sometimes you have to vouch for your communities in your job. For me, that’s in architecture,” he says. Both his mother and father worked in health and education for the local area, teaching him the virtues of being an “advocate” for his community through work. “I’ve never felt indifferent to that.”

But divisions have also surfaced in the community about the best way forward. For Mr. Ullah, it’s about preserving Bangladeshi national identity. Amid pressures of gentrification, this year marks 50 years since the creation of Bangladesh, and he wants local authorities to commission new artwork, publications, and an awards ceremony for young people in an effort to revitalize Banglatown.

Others believe the way forward lies in adapting with the city – and holding onto the coexistence that undergirds the Bangladeshi experience in Britain.

Mabrur Ahmed, a third-generation Bangladeshi born in Birmingham, just opened a cafe called Root25 in Bow, traditionally the heart of white-working-class London and in walking distance from Brick Lane. The cafe helps to fund his human rights organization, Restless Beings. On a recent afternoon imams gossip while drinking tea. Young women gather for a book reading, while a same-sex couple drink chai, cocooned on a leather sofa. 

“Adaptation is key; it is deep within us,” says Mr. Ahmed. “To balance your heritage, be true to your roots, and take the best parts of being British is the way we forge our own spaces that cater to both specific groups, and to everyone,” he says.

“We battle change by adjusting, but not excluding,” he adds. “Activism is in our blood. So too, the sweetness of tea, food, and community spirit.” 

Film

‘Encanto’: A tale of family and fitting in, set to music

“Encanto” takes place in a pre-computer era Colombia. But as Monitor Chief Culture Writer Stephen Humphries notes, the story about comparing oneself to others seems tailored for today’s social media-minded teens.

Trudy
Disney
“Encanto” is set in Colombia and features the Madrigal family and its special powers. The film compensates for shortcomings with gentle humor and Indiana Jones-style action.

‘Encanto’: A tale of family and fitting in, set to music

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In Disney’s animated musical “Encanto,” an ordinary teen struggles to fit into an extraordinary world.

Mirabel Madrigal lives in a house you won’t find on Zillow. Tucked into a mountain range, it’s a magical villa that bestows a unique power on each of its inhabitants. For example, Mirabel’s mother can heal others with her cooking. Her aunt controls the weather. One of her cousins is a shape-shifter. Her middle sister, Luisa, has superhuman strength. And Mirabel? She’s the only member of the family who doesn’t have a special gift. She’s like a Muggle at Hogwarts.

“Encanto” is set in a pre-computer era Colombia. Yet the magical realist story about comparing oneself to others seems tailored for today’s teens, who spend hours scrolling through images of seemingly perfect lives. Mirabel doesn’t need a social media feed to feel inadequate. She only has to glance across the courtyard to observe the graceful pirouettes of her oldest sister, Isabela, who can make flowers instantly bloom. Mirabel’s mother assures her that she’s special, too. Yet when the family gathers for a group photo, they neglect to include the youngest daughter. 

But – metaphor alert! – the villa’s impeccable facade is masking serious flaws. The magical home is a living entity. Its floors move like a conveyor belt and its staircase can transform into a slide. But cracks have started developing in the walls. When Mirabel expresses concern to her grandmother, the stern matriarch quickly shuts her down. And why won’t anyone talk with her about Uncle Bruno, the clairvoyant who disappeared years ago?

Disney
In “Encanto,” Mirabel Madrigal is on a quest to save her family’s house – and to understand what makes her special.

Before Mirabel can embark upon her quest to save the magic house, “Encanto” has to lay out its backstory. Plus introduce all 12 family members. It’s a lot to take in at once. An expository musical number, “Welcome to the Family Madrigal,” sets the vibrant tone of the movie. The song showcases the witty lyrics of Lin-Manuel Miranda. These days, the musical maven seems to be juggling more enterprises than Elon Musk: “Encanto” follows “In the Heights” and “Tick, Tick ... Boom!” as his third movie this year. Miranda’s wordplay here bops along to the polyrhythms of cumbia music, aided by the work of composer Germaine Franco. The melodies aren’t initially memorable, but the energy of the music complements the movie’s dynamic direction. When muscular Luisa (voiced by Jessica Darrow) sings “Surface Pressure,” a song about carrying hidden burdens, it’s accompanied by a kaleidoscopic, “Fantasia”-like dream sequence. We get to see Luisa literally move mountains. 

Throughout “Encanto,” directors Byron Howard, Jared Bush, and Charise Castro Smith utilize computers to create camera moves that not even a drone could pull off in the real world.

Thanks to the movie’s colorful palette, each frame pops like a firework. “Encanto” also sets a new benchmark in computer animation for its detailed renderings. You can almost count the individual threads in the characters’ ponchos. The ripples in the stucco walls are as tactile as Braille. Mirabel’s brown irises seem to contain galaxies.

The animated aesthetics are considerably more wondrous than the magical elements in the story. La Casita Madrigal aspires to be South America’s answer to Shangri-La. Yet the story lacks the imaginative surprises of the best fantasy tales. “Encanto” compensates with gentle humor – there’s something deeply hilarious about the indifferent expression of a capybara – and Indiana Jones-like action sequences. 

Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz from “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “In the Heights”) is a winsome protagonist. The most fun character, however, is the eccentric Uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo), who reappears. He helps his niece gain a whole new perspective on a family “so full of stars that everyone wants to shine.” As Mirabel learns to look beyond superficial appearances, she discovers her true place within the family constellation.

“Encanto” is rated PG for some thematic elements and mild peril. The film is available in theaters as of Nov. 24 and will stream on Disney+ starting Dec. 24.

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The Monitor's View

Ukraine’s best defense against Russia

Since July, when President Vladimir Putin rejected the idea that Ukraine is a sovereign country, Russia has amassed some 100,000 troops on the border with its weaker neighbor. The implied threat of an invasion has ignited concerns in Western capitals about how to defend a nation seeking to join the West.

Yet something else has been afoot since July, something that could be Ukraine’s best defense. Its elected leaders have rushed to approve or implement anti-corruption measures to meet the demands of both international lenders and its citizens.

On Tuesday, Ukraine’s struggle to reform its corrupt ways paid off, literally.

The International Monetary Fund sent nearly $700 million to Ukraine as a result of the country’s progress toward cleaning up its courts, improving the independence of the central bank and anti-corruption bodies, and curbing the influence of business tycoons. The money, part of a larger $5 billion package agreed to in early 2020, had been delayed for about a year because of relative inaction by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his ruling Servant of the People party.

When a sovereign nation arms itself with rule of law and democratic equality, war with a threatening neighbor can be won long before it starts.

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.

Don’t give up – give thanks

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When some sort of problem confronts us, feeling grateful may not be at the top of our list. But genuine gratitude for God’s love and goodness opens our hearts to the divine inspiration that brings healing and solutions.

Don’t give up – give thanks

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

When we’re faced with a difficult problem, it can be tempting to become frustrated and angry – or even to give up and feel sorry for ourselves. At such a time, gratitude might seem an unlikely response. Yet, giving thanks can be not just an effective way to lift our spirits, but also the first step in overcoming a tough challenge.

The kind of gratitude I’m talking about is more than simply counting our blessings. It involves turning our attention away from a troubled human sense of things to God, the source of all good. As our divine Parent, God tenderly guides and cares for us as any loving father or mother naturally would their child. Giving thanks for this ever-available care opens our mental shutters so we can receive the inspiration and ideas that the divine intelligence is always communicating.

Genuine gratitude flows from an understanding of the unchanging goodness of God and the harmony of God’s creation, including the innocence, purity, and uprightness of His children. From this perspective, a problem invites a change of view, one in which the infinite presence and power of God, good, become more real to us.

Gratitude can also be considered a warm-up prayer – a preparation to receive the Christ, the law of God, the truth of eternal harmony, which God is always imparting. Gratitude calms thought and opens it to spiritual reality, which we can lose sight of when absorbed in a problem. As “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, states, “Prayer cannot change the Science of being, but it tends to bring us into harmony with it” (p. 2).

I had occasion some years ago to think about gratitude in a fresh way. My employer became insolvent, and I lost my job. Although I was able to take on some freelance work, projects were complicated, budgets small, and time frames short. My wife and I were also due to move house. Then a relative passed on, and I was required to sort out their affairs. I felt stressed.

At this time, I noticed an irritation on my arm. I asked a Christian Science practitioner to help me through prayer. Naturally I wanted the physical problem to be healed, as the itching had become severe and had spread to other parts of my body. But I knew from my study of Christian Science that this was not just about a set of physical circumstances that needed changing. I needed to get a better understanding of my true identity – not as a physical entity but as a spiritual idea expressing the flawlessness of God, Spirit. And I needed to see that God, Love itself, forever cares for and maintains all of His children perfectly.

At first, I felt inadequate, being unable to report much progress to the practitioner; but I was always so touched by her loving response when she answered the phone. Her sincere appreciation for my call gave me a sense of the divine goodness always in operation. She assured me that despite any physical evidence to the contrary, God is always at work, maintaining every bit of my being as pure, whole, and loved.

This was a great comfort, and I really wanted to understand and feel it more deeply. The practitioner suggested that I “put on the new man,” the spiritual identity referred to in Ephesians 4:24, “which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.” She encouraged me to consider and list Christly qualities from God that we all reflect. Naturally, one of these was gratitude!

I began to appreciate an increasing number of beautiful spiritual attributes that we each possess – as well as the fact that we are loved and cared for by God. I felt more and more grateful and less and less fearful or impressed by the discordant physical condition. During this challenging time, I was able to complete work projects successfully, fulfill duties at church, and meet requirements for my relative’s estate.

And as my awareness of God’s continuous care for me grew, the irritation on my body faded away. I was of course immensely grateful for the physical healing, but the lessons I gleaned from this experience were just as welcome.

The second stanza of a hymn by E. W. Dennis conveys the essence of what I experienced:

A grateful heart a fortress is, A staunch and rugged tower, Where God’s omnipotence, revealed, Girds man with mighty power. (“Christian Science Hymnal,” No. 3, © CSBD)

Viewfinder

Shanghai silhouette

Aly Song/Reuters
A view of skyscrapers at sunset in Shanghai, China, on Nov. 23, 2021.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Trudy Palmer
Deputy Daily Editor

That’s it for today’s issue. Join us tomorrow for a feast of articles on Thanksgiving and giving thanks – from feeding thousands a memorable meal to a centenarian’s boundless gratitude.

More issues

2021
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