The state of human trafficking

Around midnight on Monday, a North Macedonian border patrol officer stopped a truck on a regional road near the town of Gevgelija. He found 211 migrants from Bangladesh and Pakistan packed inside, including 63 minors.


Gevgelija is close to the country’s border with Greece, which government authorities have closed during the coronavirus pandemic. But trafficking networks in the area have continued to transport migrants through Greece into North Macedonia on their way north into the heart of the European Union. Officers arrested the driver and kept the migrants at a special shelter for victims of trafficking while working to deport them back to Greece.


The U.S. State Department listed North Macedonia as a tier two country on its Trafficking in Persons list, which it updated on June 25. The list, which has been in existence for two decades, attempts to hold nations accountable for policing human trafficking.


“That 25 million people are enslaved around the world is an indictment of our age,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “That many ignore this reality is an even further indictment. God created human beings in His image and never gave human beings dominion or ownership over other image bearers.”


The State Department ranks countries based on their compliance with standards outlined in the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The list helps the U.S. government make decisions about foreign aid. Countries that don’t make an effort to meet the standards land in tier three and can lose access to financial support from the United States.


Japan fell from tier one—countries that fully meet all necessary enforcement, protection, and prevention standards—to tier two over the past year. Traffickers often funnel their victims through Japan on their way to other countries in East Asia and North America. Foreign students in the country are at risk for trafficking under abusive work-study programs. Additionally, “compensated dating” services in the country connect adults to minors and serve as a channel for trafficking children from Japan as well as other nations.


While officials identified more victims than in previous years, including 28 adults and 19 children, some Japanese traffickers only faced fines or reduced sentences, and Japan provided little information on child trafficking cases, according to the report.


Namibia and Singapore both rose to tier one. In Namibia, the government increased how many traffickers it prosecuted and built new support systems for victims, offering them better medical care, recovery services, and protection from future abuse. Singapore convicted its first trafficker under the law and had several dozen meetings with organizations to increase care for victims.


China and Russia remain in tier three, where they have been since 2013. Investigators in Pakistan late last year found that hundreds of poor Pakistani women became forced brides in China.


The 2020 report highlighted the role of religious organizations in fighting human trafficking. Those groups aren’t limited in the same ways as the government and are usually aware of particular local needs. The State Department highlighted a Catholic women’s anti-trafficking group called Talitha Kum that operates out of Rome. Though it focuses on the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, the organization helps women of faith around the world coordinate shelters, counseling services, and other victim support efforts.











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The entrance to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota







Sioux on lockdown


The tribal president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe has closed the South Dakota reservation to nonessential travel in or out for 72 hours to try to keep the coronavirus out. More than 32,000 people live on the reservation, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.


Both the Oglala and the Cheyenne River Sioux have used highway checkpoints for months to limit the number of people entering their reservations. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, said the checkpoints were illegal and ordered the tribes to take them down. The tribes sued to keep them up, and South Dakota lawmakers are considering whether to intervene. As of Wednesday, the state’s health department reported 79 new COVID-19 cases, 864 active cases, and 98 deaths. Overall, the number of new daily cases has decreased or stayed about the same in South Dakota in the past month. The percent of people testing positive spiked to about 20 percent on Sunday but dropped down to 5.5 percent by Tuesday. The pandemic has slammed some Native American reservations, overwhelming tribal healthcare facilities and exposing underlying infrastructure vulnerabilities. —R.L.A.







Sick and in prison


Six death row inmates at San Quentin State Prison in California have died from COVID-19. A coronavirus outbreak has infected about 40 percent of the facility’s population, according to corrections officials. David Reed, who died on Tuesday, was awaiting execution for murdering an African American transient in a racially motivated attack in 2004. He was 60.


San Quentin did not have a coronavirus problem until it received a transfer of 121 inmates from a prison in Chino, Calif., on May 30. Now, nearly 1,400 of the 3,500 inmates at San Quentin have tested positive. The facility houses about 700 prisoners on death row. —Lynde Langdon





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Tribes battle pandemic with little help

When Arvin Trujillo’s father died of COVID-19, the funeral lasted just 10 minutes. About 20 family members gathered at the burial site for a half-hour or so, but they didn’t hug or shake hands. There was no meal afterward where they could share memories or comfort one another. Several of Trujillo’s family members have died since the coronavirus outbreak began on the Navajo Nation reservation. One of the hardest parts, he said, is the lack of community and closure as they grieved.


“You didn’t have a chance to really say goodbye,” Trujillo said. “You’re just kind of left open. … Something isn’t done yet.”


Native American reservations have suffered from higher-than-average rates of cases of the coronavirus. Most face delays in using federal relief funds as underlying poverty and a lack of resources exacerbate the pandemic’s effects.


As of Tuesday, the Navajo Nation had reported more than 7,500 confirmed cases and 364 deaths. The tribe’s COVID-19 mortality rate of about 102 per 100,000 residents is higher than that of all but five U.S. states: New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Now the states that border the 27,000-square-mile reservation are starting to see a surge of cases. Most of the Navajo Nation’s territory is in Arizona, one of the leading U.S. hot spots, with a seven-day positive test rate average of more than 20 percent, compared to 8.4 percent nationwide. Authorities have barred non-residents from entering the reservation.


Other tribes have seen similar outbreaks. More than 12 percent of the 13,500 residents of the Fort Apache reservation in northeastern Arizona have tested positive for COVID-19. The tribal government banned the sale and use of alcohol for the rest of the year to keep people home. Arizona’s Havasupai reservation in the Grand Canyon has managed to keep the known case count at zero. But its roughly 600-person village of Supai is only accessible by foot, and officials have shut down the reservation for months. Reservations in Alaska, Montana, and South Dakota have limited movement, as well, especially people coming in from the outside.


The federal government set aside some $8 billion for Native American tribes as part of the economic relief package Congress passed in March, but it took much longer for that money to reach the reservations. While individual tribal members got stimulus checks along with other Americans, larger reservation relief had to go through two rounds of bureaucracy: first the U.S. government and then the tribal legislative process. A lawsuit over whether certain Native American–owned corporations could receive a chunk of the money held up distribution for weeks. The U.S. Treasury Department released 60 percent of the funds to the reservations in early May, with the rest coming on June 12. After that, the tribal governments had to agree on how to distribute the money. The Navajo Nation, for example, didn’t finalize a plan that allowed it to begin spending its $714 million until Thursday, and tribal President Jonathan Nez still must approve the process, the Navajo Times reported.


The stimulus package limits the use of the funds to particular needs related to the pandemic, but the exact distribution depends on the tribal governments. In the Navajo Nation, its legislature’s plan would spend $25 million to keep the government running and pay first responders. Another $20 million is going toward protective equipment for healthcare workers and disinfecting and maintenance work at government buildings, according to the Navajo Times.


Trujillo previously worked for the Navajo Nation’s tribal government and now serves as CEO of Four Corners Economic Development in Farmington, N.M. He said the pandemic has revealed the vulnerable nature of Native American communities, particularly when it comes to access to necessary services and infrastructure. Extended families often live together, making it difficult to isolate a sick relative. Many children on the Navajo reservation don’t have internet access, so virtual education is impossible. Families often have to drive long distances to get to basic things like water or groceries. The sick quickly overwhelmed medical services: In total, the reservation only had 200 hospital beds for its more than 173,000 residents, the BBC reported.


Trujillo said he hopes the tribal leaders, the federal government, and the broader community will take the opportunity to identify the weaknesses that left reservations vulnerable to the coronavirus so they can prioritize budgeting and improvement efforts in the future.


“With different tribes, there’s been different disasters that have happened, but nothing as prolonged or unpredicted as this,” he said, explaining that in the past, “we moved on, and nothing really changes. But this pandemic has really opened a lot of people’s eyes.”











Associated Press/Photo by Michael Conroy (file)

The U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.







Supreme Court greenlights executions


The U.S. government plans to carry out death sentences against four inmates in July and August after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected their appeals on Monday.


The first is scheduled for July 13, almost exactly a year after U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced that the federal government would restart executions at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind. The government restored the death penalty in 1988 but has only carried it out three times since then—most recently in 2003.


The inmates are Danny Lee, sentenced for killing a family of three in Arkansas; Wesley Ira Purkey, convicted of raping and murdering a 16-year-old girl and killing an 80-year-old woman in Kansas; Dustin Lee Honken, found guilty in the murders of five people in Iowa; and Keith Dwayne Nelson, who faces death for the rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl in Kansas. The inmates have asked a federal judge to delay the executions over other legal issues.


White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the families and communities of the victims will “finally receive some long-overdue justice.”


Some 54 percent of Americans support the death penalty for persons convicted of murder, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center study. That percentage increased from a four-decade low of 49 percent in 2016. —Seth Johnson












Associated Press/Photo by Sarah Blake Morgan (file)

A mental health video teleconference at Cohen Veteran’s Network







Pandemic anxiety


A surge of clients has inundated mental health and addiction centers during the coronavirus pandemic.


A poll taken in March by the Kaiser Family Foundation found 45 percent of Americans said the coronavirus had negatively affected their mental health. And the federal mental health crisis hotline has seen a significant jump in calls compared to this time last year.


Though the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services received $175 billion in stimulus funds to support health facilities during the pandemic, nearly a third of mental health centers haven’t received any of it, Politico reported. Facilities that received payments in earlier rounds of HHS funding are ineligible for more, including anything from the $15 billion HHS made available last month.


A United Nations report released in May said that countries spend about 2 percent of their health budgets on mental health. With the coronavirus pandemic increasing demand, the UN noted that mental health “must be included in health care benefit packages and insurance schemes to ensure essential mental health needs are covered.” —S.J.







Pitching in


Refugees in Greece decided to assist churches in South Carolina that had supported them in the past.


When the coronavirus hit, refugees at a camp in Lesbos, Greece, started making masks. Once they made enough for everyone who lived in the camp, they decided to make more for people from several churches who had come to serve there. They ended up sending thousands of masks to church members in South Carolina, WLTX-TV in Columbia, S.C., reported.


Robbie McAlister, a consultant for ethnic ministry and refugee work, said that close to 300 people from the churches had ministered in the Lesbos camp over the last 3½ years. He helped distribute the handmade masks to churches across the state with notes that said, “We are all one people and must protect one another.” —S.J.





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Changing policing for good

An article written by retired officer Randy Petersen about police reform two years ago saw a spike in views recently when he posted it on his LinkedIn page.


“More people [were] interested in that in the last six weeks than probably in the last two years combined,” said Petersen, who now works for Texas Public Policy Foundation researching law enforcement and criminal justice issues.


He also recently received calls from two state lawmakers—unusual, since the Texas Legislature is not in session—to discuss police training, hiring, unions, and police use of military equipment. On June 15, he spoke at a TPPF livestreamed event about police reform and had “double the highest amount of live viewers.”


Since George Floyd’s May 25 death in Minneapolis, public policy advocates say they have seen a spike in support for police reform. A nationwide survey conducted June 11-15 by AP-NORC indicated almost 70 percent of Americans want to see a “complete overhaul” or “major changes” to the criminal justice system.


Heather Rice-Minus, vice president of government affairs at Prison Fellowship, said Democratic and Republican lawmakers and Trump administration staff have contacted the organization since Floyd’s death. Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., asked to discuss a proposal to reform qualified immunity for police. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., asked for the group’s support for the police reform bill he introduced in the last week.


Prison Fellowship has not yet endorsed the Senate bill or a House police reform measure introduced by Democrats, but Rice-Minus said the group wants to see lawmakers address several issues: officer de-escalation training, community policing models, qualified immunity reform, and the transfer of military equipment to police. She said the energy around those topics could lead to substantial policy changes. “There’s something happening in this country right now that I’ve not seen in all my years of working on these issues,” she said.


She also hopes the momentum will carry beyond policing to criminal justice reforms. Prison Fellowship is pushing for proportionate sentencing, bail reform, and access to good legal counsel for those on trial.


On June 16, President Donald Trump signed an executive order calling for greater police transparency, more de-escalation training, and a program for social workers to help police interact with crime victims, people experiencing homelessness, and the mentally ill. John Malcolm, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, called the measures a step in the right direction. He noted more journalists have requested interviews with him lately and said the momentum for reform could produce results in areas where the Senate and House bills agree—officer training and better use-of-force policy. “I think that there is a recognition that some police reform is very much called for, and I think it’s going to happen,” he said.


But a spike in interest doesn’t always equal good legislation.


Petersen, the retired officer in Texas, said the president’s executive order already covers most of the law enforcement policy areas the federal government can influence. The most effective reforms will come as local departments change hiring and training practices and learn their communities’ priorities and expectations.


“That’s not as exciting as saying, ‘Let’s just defund the police,’” Petersen said. “No one wants to protest saying, ‘Hey, in 30 years, we’d like to have different policing.’”


Reforming the laws police enforce will also more quickly change how the police operate, he said. Petersen pointed out that Eric Garner died in 2014 after resisting New York City police officers who attempted to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes. Less burdensome laws—especially for less serious offenses—would decrease chances of violent police interactions, Petersen said.


High-profile pushes like the Minneapolis City Council’s resolution to transform its police department and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vow to cut police funding have snatched headlines. But the AP-NORC poll found most Americans oppose defunding police departments. Rafael Mangual, a legal policy expert at the Manhattan Institute, warned funding cuts that reduce police presence in vulnerable neighborhoods would lead to more crime: “I think a lot of people who are supporting these protests are doing so from a perch that does not allow them to see or understand life in a truly dangerous neighborhood.”











Associated Press/Photo by Evan Vucci (file)

President Donald Trump







New immigration rules announced


The Trump administration said this week it was further restricting immigration to preserve jobs for U.S. workers. On Monday, President Donald Trump announced extensions to earlier limits on immigrant visas. Back in April, the administration suspended the issuance of green cards to those outside the United States for 60 days. Trump pushed the timeframe of the restriction to the end of the year. Officials will reevaluate and possibly renew the restrictions at that time.


The United States is also placing a hold on issuing certain nonimmigrant visas to people living outside of the country.


“Under ordinary circumstances, properly administered temporary worker programs can provide benefits to the economy,” he said, but under the circumstances, foreign workers “pose an unusual threat to the employment of American workers.”


The hold applies to H-1B, H-2B, J, and L visas. That list includes visas for specialty workers—often employed in the tech field—nonagricultural workers like landscapers, work and school exchange programs, and in-company transfers to the United States. The rules make exceptions for certain healthcare workers who would fight COVID-19, as well as those coming to work in the strapped U.S. food supply chain.


Asylum regulations are also getting stricter. The federal government published a rule on Monday saying U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will no longer have to abide by a 30-day deadline to process work authorization requests from people seeking asylum, beginning in late August. Citing a spike in claims, USCIS described the deadline as burdensome and said removing the time limit would allow officials more flexibility to vet entrants. A separate rule, set for publication on Friday, tightens requirements for asylum seekers to get work permits. —Rachel Lynn Aldrich












Associated Press/Photo by Rich Pedroncelli (file)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom







Extending care


California officials are considering changes to the state foster care system to help vulnerable youth who become adults during the coronavirus pandemic. A bill introduced in the state Senate would allow more foster youth to stay in care until they turned 21. If passed, the law would also keep many who turn 21 this year in state custody through June of next year. Gov. Gavin Newsom already signed an executive order to relax or suspend some foster care regulations. It allowed foster youth who were scheduled to “age out” at 21 to stay under state care until the end of this month.


“If at least their minimum needs can be covered, maybe they can keep a leg up in higher education, maybe they can hold on until the economy returns,” Amy Lemley, executive director of the San Francisco–based John Burton Advocates for Youth, told The Mercury News. —R.L.A.







Staving off poverty


Several economists believe stimulus checks sent out by the federal government kept many people from sliding into poverty during the coronavirus pandemic.


In research they plan to present on Thursday, James Sullivan of the University of Notre Dame and Bruce Meyer and Jeehoon Han of the University of Chicago found the estimated U.S. monthly poverty rate fell 2.3 percentage points between January and May despite the pandemic-related shutdowns and subsequent job losses. The researchers said the stimulus checks everyone received in April and May explained the decline.


After nationwide shutdowns hammered the economy early this year, incremental reopening plans have already brought good news. U.S. employers defied economists’ expectations by adding 2.5 million jobs in May, accompanied by a 13.3 percent decline in the unemployment rate. —R.L.A.





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Hamilton on screen: “Providential and timely”

The hit musical Hamilton promotes inclusivity, democracy, and the power of youth to change the world. But to get tickets to its original Broadway run in 2015, you had to have money and connections—or divine intervention. The hip-hop musical about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton sold out New York’s Richard Rodgers Theater just about every night its first year, and the cost of a seat on the secondary market averaged $350, according to Forbes. But now, thanks to Disney+, anyone with a device that has an internet connection can get an inexpensive front-row seat to see Hamilton. A performance featuring much of the show’s original Broadway cast debuted on the streaming platform on Friday.


“For something that has been such an exclusive and elite experience to be democratized on a platform that’s only $6.99 a month, I think there’s something really amazing about that,” said Austin Smith, a member of the show’s original Broadway cast who spent about a year in Hamilton as an ensemble member and understudy for the major roles of Aaron Burr and George Washington. Smith witnessed first-hand how Hamilton inspired and challenged its audiences with a message just as relevant today as it was at the birth of the nation.


The production drew its popularity not just from the story but also the way it told it. Latino, African American, Asian American, and other ethnic minority actors played every role in the show except the villain, King George III.


“The cultural conversation that surrounded the show was important in terms of representation for people who look like me, who are told there are only certain types of roles you should play … and you shouldn’t want more than that,” said Smith, who is African American. “There are going to be kids all over the country who look like me and look like my castmates who will see themselves in a way that maybe they haven’t before, and I think that’s important.”


Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of the original Broadway show, based the musical on a biography of Hamilton by Ron Chernow. Miranda’s adaptation does not gloss over the flaws of the Founding Fathers, including Hamilton’s infidelity, Burr’s egotism, or Thomas Jefferson’s defense of slavery. He makes it clear that each of them could have achieved much more had they not succumbed to the temptation of sin along the way. Yet Hamilton stays unashamedly patriotic, celebrating the strengths of the U.S. political system despite the flaws of the people who built it.


It does that by emphasizing the creativity that followed the United States’ overthrow of British Colonial rule. While the first act gives summaries and recaps of important Revolutionary War battles, the second act spends entire musical numbers on single Cabinet meetings at which Hamilton, Jefferson, and James Madison debated things like the central banking system or the best response to the French Revolution.


Smith is the son of a Baptist minister in Chicago and the grandson of a civil rights pioneer, J.C. Smith, an activist in the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott of 1955. He called Hamilton’s release in the middle of nationwide revolts against police and white supremacy a “providential, timely coincidence,” saying he thought it could “offer some sense of hope, as well, that revolution is fruitful, and the status quo is not always great for everybody.”


Hamilton is rated PG-13 for language and sexual references. Its dancing, while not as explicit as most hip-hop music videos, is more suggestive than the average Disney show. As a cast member, Smith’s advice to viewers was to watch it more than once—something the musical’s patrons on Broadway couldn’t easily do but, thanks to streaming and the internet, fans at home can.











Associated Press/Photo by Michael Wyke (file)

Houston Rockets forward Robert Covington (right) tries to steal the ball from Minnesota Timberwolves guard D’Angelo Russell during a game on March 10 in Houston.







Socially convenient justice


The NBA has decided that when games resume in Orlando, Fla., later this month, it will allow players to promote social justice during the game—sort of.


Under an agreement between the players’ union and the league, social messages from an approved list can appear on jerseys in place of players’ names.


ESPN on Friday gained access to a list of the approved slogans: Black Lives Matter, Say Their Names, Vote, I Can’t Breathe, Justice, Peace, Equality, Freedom, Enough, Power to the People, Justice Now, Say Her Name, Sí Se Puede (Yes We Can), Liberation, See Us, Hear Us, Respect Us, Love Us, Listen, Listen to Us, Stand Up, Ally, Anti-Racist, I Am a Man, Speak Up, How Many More, Group Economics, Education Reform, and Mentor.


The list doesn’t contain any references to Hong Kong, the focus of a protest movement within the NBA last year. In October 2019, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey set off a firestorm when he offered support for pro-democracy protesters in the territory controlled by the Chinese government by tweeting: “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” The league’s Chinese sponsors cut ties, and Chinese state-run TV stopped airing games. China accounted for at least 10 percent of the NBA’s revenue, CNN reported. League Commissioner Adam Silver and Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James attempted to distance the league from Morey’s comment, and Morey deleted the tweet and apologized.


Historically, the NBA has avoided controversy. In 2014, Silver complained about players wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts during pregame warmups to protest the death of Eric Garner in New York City when a police officer placed him in a chokehold during an arrest. The league still requires players to stand for the national anthem, though that might change soon.


Last week in Hong Kong, however, the Chinese government enacted stricter laws against pro-democracy protesters, furthering brutality and oppression against those who criticize communism and promote freedom. But the NBA and other major corporations continue to play it safe, unwilling to risk profits in China. —Collin Garbarino












Associated Press/Photo by Michael Wyke (file)

Kanye West







Entertainment notes


  • Rapper Kanye West appears to be serious about running for president, but he hadn’t filed any paperwork with the Federal Election Commission when he announced his bid on Saturday. West, an outspoken Christian, previously supported President Donald Trump. He made headlines again on Monday because his fashion company, Yeezy, received a multimillion-dollar loan from the federal Payment Protection Program, according to data released by the U.S. Treasury Department.

  • Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick might soon work with Disney on a documentary about his life. His sideline protest against police brutality in 2016 was an early milestone in the Black Lives Matter movement and a flashpoint in the national debate over racism and patriotism. On Saturday, he posted a video to social media of actor James Earl Jones reading Frederick Douglass’ famous speech, “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?” with the caption, “We reject your celebration of white supremacy & look forward to liberation for all.” Kaepernick and Disney also said they plan to work together to showcase minority directors, writers, and producers.

  • Sponsors and retailers are upping the pressure on the NFL’s Washington Redskins to change the team’s name. FedEx, which owns the naming rights to the stadium where the team plays, asked the franchise last week to drop the moniker, which many view as a slur against Native Americans. Nike stopped carrying team merchandise in its online stores, and Target and Walmart appeared to follow suit this week. Owner Dan Snyder said on Friday the team would review its name. —L.L.





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The thorny road back to baseball

After months of coronavirus lockdowns, baseball in July could be good medicine for Americans. But some players are opting not to participate in this year’s shortened season because of the ongoing risks of COVID-19.


Last week, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred declared a 60-game season would take place after negotiations between the players union and MLB failed to come up with a better plan. Play will begin on July 23 or 24. Training camps start on Wednesday, primarily at the teams’ home ballparks. Postseason play is set to begin on Sept. 29, with Game 1 of the World Series scheduled for Oct. 20.


Whether fans can attend games depends on each state’s health guidelines. For players and staff, a 101-page manual lays out hygiene rules to prevent or monitor COVID-19 cases. New protocols include no high-fives or sharing equipment, and definitely no spitting.


The precautions did not satisfy the concerns of players such as Mike Leake, a pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross of the World Series–champion Washington Nationals, who have confirmed they will not play this season. MLB said it would pay players who opted out if they had high-risk health conditions, but others—including Leak, Zimmerman, and Ross—will forgo their salaries.


Zimmerman, a two-time All-Star, said he would love to pursue back-to-back championships, “but given the nature of the season, this is the best decision for me and my family.”


Colorado Rockies outfielder Ian Desmond also announced on Monday he would sit out the 2020 season—and not just because of the pandemic.


“With a pregnant wife and four young children who have lots of questions about what’s going on in the world, home is where I need to be right now,” he wrote in an Instagram post, where he lists “Christian. Husband. Dad. Professional athlete” to describe himself in his profile. “Home for my wife, Chelsey. Home to help. Home to guide. Home to answer my older three boys’ questions about Coronavirus and Civil Rights and life. Home to be their Dad.”


Elsewhere, though, players are looking forward to getting back on the field.


“The excitement level is off the charts to finally have something going,” Minnesota Twins pitcher Taylor Rogers said.


Major League Baseball is divided into the American and National leagues, with teams in each league further divided into three mostly geographical divisions. To minimize travel this year, teams will play 10 games each against their four other divisional opponents. The remaining 20 games will be against teams in the corresponding division of the other league. For example, the National League Central Division St. Louis Cardinals will play the American League Central Division Kansas City Royals.


Rule changes include a designated hitter in both leagues instead of only in the American League and the placement of a baserunner on second base in each half-inning of extra innings.


Along with the challenge of keeping players and employees safe from the coronavirus, the sport has to reckon with calls to promote racial justice. Some players want the name and image of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the sport’s first commissioner who presided over baseball’s segregation-era, removed from the NL and AL’s MVP plaques. Others have called for the removal of statues of known racists like Calvin Griffith, the former owner of the Minnesota Twins. Griffith once said he chose the team’s location in Minneapolis because so few African Americans lived there. The Twins took down a memorial to Griffith at Target Field earlier this month.


Manfred has to lead the sport through those thorny conversations while battling the public’s perception of players and owners as greedy and temperamental.


“We need to get back on the field, and we need to, in a less-charged environment, start to have conversations about how we—and the ‘we’ in that sentence is the commissioner’s office, my staff, the clubs and the [players’ union] and the players—can be better going forward,” he said. “We owe it to our fans to be better than we’ve been the last three months.”











Getty Images/Photo by Jesse Grant (file)

Trey Parker (left) and Matt Stone







Selective sensitivity


With newfound racial awareness, streaming services have scrubbed television episodes that show actors in blackface, cleaning up series such as The Office, 30 Rock, Community, and Scrubs. But they have censored South Park, perhaps the most offensive television program of all time, for a different reason.


Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of the cartoon that airs on Comedy Central, have spent more than 20 years slaughtering America’s sacred cows with dark satire. The series mocks politics, religion, and pop culture using profanity, racial slurs, violence, and graphic images. Parker and Stone have more or less avoided accusations of prejudice and discrimination by offending everyone equally.


South Park landed on HBO Max on Wednesday after stints on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and others. But in selling the rights to stream the series, Viacom, which owns Comedy Central, excluded five episodes that refer to or depict Islam’s Muhammad.


In a 2001 episode titled “Super Best Friends,” a cartoon Muhammad joins caricatures of Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Lao Tzu, Moses, and Joseph Smith to save the world from a cult leader. At the time it aired, the episode didn’t cause much of a stir, but 2005’s violent protests over depictions of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper changed how media handled the issue.


In 2006, Parker and Stone criticized media self-censorship in two episodes titled “Cartoon Wars.” The characters of the South Park universe fought to allow depictions of Muhammad on their televisions. On the show, they won the fight, but in real life, Comedy Central censored the episodes by covering the images of Muhammad with black boxes.


In 2010, South Park revisited the theme in two episodes without depicting Muhammad. Certain celebrities went looking for Muhammad in an attempt to gain his superpower of being immune from criticism, but he was nowhere to be found. After those episodes, Parker and Stone received a “warning” (read: death threat) from an online Muslim group, and Comedy Central eventually pulled the episodes from its website and streaming deals. —Collin Garbarino


Entertainment notes


  • Israel wants to take a channel owned by an evangelical broadcaster off the air for allegedly proselytizing Jews.

  • Democrats in Orange County, Calif., want to take John Wayne’s name off the airport—and remove a statue of him—because of racist statements he made, including saying he believed in white supremacy “until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.”

  • New York’s Broadway theaters announced they will remain closed for the rest of the year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

  • The NBA plans to paint “Black Lives Matter” on the courts it will use when it resumes games on July 30 at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla. —Lynde Langdon





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Director, comedian Carl Reiner dies

Comedy legend Carl Reiner, the creator of The Dick Van Dyke Show, died on Monday at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 98.


After working with comedian Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows in the 1950s, Reiner wrote the first 13 episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show with plans to play the lead role himself. His own life as a devoted family man living in New Rochelle, N.Y., and working as a comedy writer in New York City inspired the story, which his wife encouraged him to write. Producers picked up the sitcom but with a different lead actor: Dick Van Dyke. Reiner said he was grateful to executive producer Sheldon Leonard “for telling me I was a producer when I thought I was an actor.” The show aired from 1961 to 1966 and won 15 Emmys, including five for Reiner for writing and producing.


What else was he known for? He acted in The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and the latest Oceans Eleven movies. His directorial credits included Oh, God! starring George Burns and All of Me with Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin. He was married to his wife, Estelle, for 64 years until her death in 2008. They had three children who survive them: actor-director Rob, playwright-poet Sylvia, and actor-director Lucas.


Dig deeper: Read Lynde Langdon’s obituary of Mary Tyler Moore, the actress who played the role inspired by Reiner’s wife on The Dick Van Dyke Show.


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A farewell to Aunt Jemima

In 1889, Chris Rutt started using the name “Aunt Jemima” to market his pancake flour after he heard the song “Old Aunt Jemima” in a minstrel show. The shows usually featured white actors in blackface, but African American comedian Billy Kersands wrote and performed “Old Aunt Jemima.”


After Rutt sold his company, the new owners hired Nancy Green, a former slave, in 1893 to pose as Aunt Jemima and sell the product. A number of women played Aunt Jemima, a role that evoked the stereotype of a “black mammy,” or a happy slave who devoted her life to a white family.


Quaker Oats updated the brand’s image in 1989 for its 100th birthday. Aunt Jemima lost her headscarf and received pearl earrings but kept her name. At the time, a spokesperson for Quaker Oats called the brand recognition “an invaluable asset.” Now that asset has become a liability.


The social movement against racism, sparked by the death of George Floyd and stoked by other police killings of African Americans, has subjected longstanding monuments, memorials, and even brand identities to renewed scrutiny. On June 15, African American singer Kirby posted a TikTok video entitled “How to make a non-racist breakfast.” In the video, she poured a box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix into a sink. Within days, Quaker Oats announced the beginning of the end the brand.


“We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype,” said Kristin Kroepfl of Quaker Foods North America. “While work has been done over the years to update the brand in a manner intended to be appropriate and respectful, we realize those changes are not enough.”


Other brands that rely on African American or other ethnic minority imagery followed suit: Uncle Ben’s rice, Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup, Cream of Wheat porridge, and Eskimo Pie ice cream treats all said they planned to review their own branding.


The proposed changes met some resistance from people associated with the women who once played the role of Aunt Jemima. Sherry Williams is president of the historical society of Bronzeville, the Chicago neighborhood where Green lived. She told WBEZ-FM she wished Quaker Oats would celebrate the contributions of women like Green rather than erasing them.


Anna Short Harrington and Lillian Richard took on the role of Aunt Jemima in the years after Green’s death in 1923.


“This is an injustice for me and my family,” Harrington’s great-grandson, Larnell Evans, told Patch. “This is part of my history,” Vera Harris, a relative of Lillian Richard, echoed those concerns.


“I wish we would take a breath and not just get rid of everything, because good or bad, it is our history,” Harris told KTVT-TV.


Though some people have no discomfort with the brands or even feel nostalgia for them, Vincent Bacote, a professor of theology at Wheaton College, called the changes a step in the right direction.


“There have been people who have always been uncomfortable with the branding of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s because they are beloved African American figures who are subservient,” said Bacote, who is African American. “Depending upon how you grew up and where you grew up, it can seem to reinforce a certain notion of joyful subservience of minorities.” A pancake syrup’s branding might seem like a little thing, but what if it contributes to the idea that black people belong in service roles to whites? Bacote said brands should ask themselves, “Are [we] reinforcing the idea that that’s the kind of jobs those people should be in?”


He suggested Christians use conversations on race and marketing as an opportunity to learn. Advertising images have meaning, and Christians—who have often critiqued sexualization in marketing—ought to think carefully about race in advertising, too: “We are in a time of great potential for there to be a broad, consistent Christian witness that addresses questions of race and justice.”











Facebook/Luis Javier Ruiz

Luis Ruiz







Transformed


They heard the gunshots echo across the dance floor and ran for their lives.


Angel Colon and Luis Ruiz suffered injuries but escaped death after a terrorist opened fire on June 12, 2016, in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. After surviving the second-worst mass shooting in U.S. history, in which 49 people died, Colon and Ruiz walked away from their homosexual lifestyles and became Christians.


More Than a Victim: The Angel Colon and Luis Ruiz Story gives a partial account of what happened to the pair at Pulse and how they found new freedom in Christ. The response to the 53-minute film, available to stream on Amazon Prime, has thrilled Colon and Ruiz. They said parents and pastors have contacted them and asked to show the movie in their churches. The duo also praised Amazon for its willingness to stream the film in June during LGBT Pride Month.


“We are so thankful that there are people out there that are ready to hear us out and tell our stories even if they disagree,” Ruiz told Movieguide. Already, the two are planning another documentary about their conversion with former lesbian and filmmaker M.J. Nixon. —Sharon Dierberger












Associated Press/Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision (file)

Stassi Schroeder







The ghosts of past posts


TV networks have fired a slew of on-air talent in the past few weeks over racially offensive social media posts. Bravo ousted several reality show stars, starting with Vanderpump Rules’ Stassi Schroeder, Kristen Doute, Brett Caprioni, and Max Boyens, for various racist actions and posts several years ago. Next, the network booted Peter Hunziker of Below Deck Mediterranean.


MTV reportedly fired Teen Mom’s Taylor Selfridge—though she says she left voluntarily—for past tweets, including one from 2012 that said, “Sometimes I won’t greet Black people because they scare me.”


The Flash actor Hartley Sawyer lost his job after The CW discovered his derogatory opinions on Twitter about women, African Americans, and gay people before he could delete them.


The Daily Mail and Page Six of the New York Post reported multiple networks hired private investigative firm Edward Myers & Associates, which helps crack Los Angeles County’s toughest gang murders, to vet auditioning cast members more thoroughly. —S.D.












Facebook/Christian Nilsson

Eric Tabach (left) and Christian Nilsson







Only in the movies


How does a movie made in a few weeks with a budget of $0 manage to top the U.S. box office? A coronavirus loophole.


Filmmaker Christian Nilsson and actor Eric Tabach noticed the dearth of new films and low ticket sales due to COVID-19 restrictions and saw an opportunity to make the No. 1 movie in America.


Nillson wrote the horror script, Unsubscribe, in one sitting. Tabach enlisted friends to act, including Charlie Tahan from the TV drama Ozark. “Absolutely nothing was going on. Everyone wanted to be part of this fun project, for free,” Tabach said. They used Zoom to shoot all the footage then bought all the tickets in a rented New York cinema and attended the 29-minute premiere by themselves. Shortly after, IMDb announced Unsubscribed, with top ticket sales on June 10, was Numero Uno—for one day. —S.D.







Filmmaker Joel Schumacher dies


Batman Forever and Batman & Robin director Joel Schumacher died in New York on Monday after fighting cancer for a year, a representative said. He was 80.


Though he started as a costume director, Schumacher established himself as a well-known director in the 1980s and 90s. He helped make the Brat Pack—a group of young actors who often collaborated in the 1980s—famous with his first hit, St. Elmo’s Fire. Batman Forever starring Val Kilmer was a box-office success in 1995. Batman & Robin, starring George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell, got poor reviews. Clooney called it “a waste of money.”


Schumacher later directed several thrillers and a screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Phantom of the Opera. When not behind the camera, he bragged about his promiscuous homosexual lifestyle, but he also talked of the pain of losing so many friends to AIDS in the early years of the epidemic. —Rachel Lynn Aldrich





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The Last Tree tussles with tough issues

<em>The Last Tree</em> tussles with tough issues
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New independent film is not for kids
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Sharon Dierberger
Picturehouse Entertainment

Ah, the freedom of childhood: 11-year-old boys playing in mud, wrestling, out-­bellowing each other, oblivious of skin color.


Still, despite its family themes, compelling cinematography, evocative score, and impressive acting, The Last Tree is not for kids. It’s worth seeing if you’re ready for an unvarnished, revealing journey into the world of a foster child struggling to find his identity, torn between cultures.


The film centers on three chapters of a Nigerian boy’s life in Lincolnshire (England), London, and Lagos. Femi spends his carefree childhood in the countryside with Mary, the loving, white foster mom he adores. She promises: “She’s not coming to take you away.”


In the next scene, his birth mom returns to take him to dreary London where his troubles begin, including racial tensions between other blacks. We watch him grapple with relationships and life-defining choices. A compassionate teacher who recognizes himself in Femi intervenes in a turning-point moment to hug away the teen’s anger, allowing him to finally sob. Healing begins.


Both moms are described as Christians, although one admonishes harshly. A pastor is a louse. F-bombs fly occasionally. Several characters smoke marijuana. The independent film can be purchased and streamed through a number of virtual cinemas.


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Lots of action, little restraint

Lots of action, little restraint
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My Spy isn’t quite a kid or adult movie
Movies
Marty VanDriel
MWM Studios

CIA operative JJ (a tough-looking Dave Bautista) doesn’t do subtle. In My Spy’s opening scene, he blows his mission by blowing up too many people. The violence is somewhat comical and artsy, but JJ does a lot of killing for a PG-13 film (available on Amazon Prime).


JJ’s boss gives him one more chance with a new mission: Surveil widow Kate and her 9-year-old daughter Sophie. Kate’s brother-in-law Victor is a bad dude up to no good.


JJ and partner Bobbi (hilariously played by character actor Kristen Schaal) embark on a routine, boring assignment, until young Sophie (Chloe Coleman) busts them.


The plot unfolds without too many surprises: Sophie learns how a spy thinks and acts. JJ helps her with the challenges a kid without a dad faces.


Although contrived and predictable, the movie is enjoyable and genuinely funny at times. In an idyllic skating scene, Sophie asks JJ what he sees around him: “Ninety civilians. Minimal security. Soft perimeter. No cover.” 


“I just see people smiling and having fun,” she responds.


Viewers may wonder about the intended audience of the poorly reviewed film: too much violence and coarse language for youngsters, but not sophisticated enough for adults. Producers are careful to avoid F-bombs in a PG-13 movie but have no filter when it comes to using God’s name in vain. Viewers may want to pass.


Top-Grossing Spy Movies


1. Despicable Me 2 (2013): $368 million


2. Skyfall (2012): $304 million


3. The Bourne Ultimatum (2007): $227 million


4. Mission Impossible II (2000): $215 million


5. Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002): $213 million


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A delightful film journey

A delightful film journey
Documentary
Religion
Christianity
History
David Suchet’s In the Footsteps of St. Peter is a hidden streaming gem
Movies
Megan Basham
Martin Kemp

Think of actor David Suchet as a sort of Christian Rick Steves. With his 2015 documentary In the Footsteps of St. Peter, he guides us cheerily along the highways of the apostle’s life. He hits major points of the New Testament and heads down intriguing byways, based more on tradition and theory. Along the way, he may stop now and then to sample a local delicacy, like fried tilapia sold in Galilean ports as “Peter’s fish,” or to admire a lovely 11th-century fresco. 


It’s a lot more fun than your average take-your-medicine educational documentary (and a lot more likely to leave you with an urge to book plane tickets). 


Suchet is best known for playing Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. So he can’t resist hamming it up in high thespian style now and then. But that’s all part of the charm. We not only hear from experts on the theological significance of certain details of Peter’s life, we experience Suchet’s childlike delight at casting nets with Galilean fishermen and examining a boat similar to what the disciples would have used.


Like its predecessor, In the Footsteps of St. Paul, this film is a mainstream BBC production, so it doesn’t proselytize. As Suchet wrote in The Telegraph, “I’m not trying to evangelise. I’m just trying to bring to people one of the most extraordinary men that ever lived.” Yet his faith shines through: When he visits Mount Tabor, he muses in awed tones that he could be standing on the ground where Jesus was transfigured. Later he exclaims how different scholarly Jewish debates are from the kinds of Bible studies he attends.


Even more impressive are the experts he consults. None actively undermine Biblical narratives as in similar documentaries. A few, like King’s College London history professor Joan Taylor, even subtly bolster it. Taylor explains she doesn’t believe Christianity would have been possible without miracles: “We know that the Messiah was expected to do extraordinary things because of one particular Dead Sea Scroll. It says that among the works of the Messiah, [He] would heal the blind, raise up those who were bowed down, raise the dead, and preach the good news. So Jesus was doing this, proving that He had the power that was expected of the Messiah.”


Longtime believers will likely find the second episode more engaging than the first. It leaves the well-worn particulars of Peter’s life, described in the New Testament, and moves into cautious speculation, like where and when he might have traveled in Turkey to new churches.


Some Christians may take issue with a few moments, as when Suchet asserts that the Cappadocian mountains were formed over 10 million years. But overall, he makes such an amiable guide in a good-faith effort to shed light on the Apostle Peter’s life, even young-earth viewers aren’t likely to regret taking the journey with him. The documentary is streaming on Amazon Prime.


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