Gillette’s inspiring new ad shows a Dad walking his trans son through his first shave.

Back in January, Gillette sparked a major discussion in American culture about toxic masculinity with an advertisement that was more of a public service announcement about the need for change in our culture.

Even though that ad drew a fair amount of controversy, Gillette has doubled down with a powerful new advertisement showing a father taking his transgender son through his first shave.

The 60 second ad was first posted to Facebook and has been viewed more than 1 million times and shared more than 9,000 times.

“Growing up I was always trying to figure out what kind of man I wanted to become,” Samson says in the video. “And I’m still trying to figure out what type of man I want to become.”

In the video, Samson practices the basic steps to shaving his father has taught him, “South, South, East, West, never in a hurry,” he says, holding the razor over his face.

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“Now, don’t be scared,” his father says as Samson begins to run the blade across his neck for the first time. “Shaving is about being confident.”

“You are doing fine, you are doing fine,” his father says reassuringly.

Everyone’s first shave is a special, life-changing moment and this video is no different. Much like Gillette did with their toxic masculinity ad, it also shows there are unifying and positive ways to address masculinity in our culture. Every man needs a place to safely and confidently be themselves. And when we see fathers stepping up to support their sons like Samson, that is truly the best a man can get.

Mueller's statement on the Russia probe has everyone ready for impeachment proceedings to begin.

Lo and behold! Sixty-eight days after he delivered his report to the Attorney General, Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III has emerged from the shadows to introduce the world to what his voice sounds like.

His voice sounds like that of an aggravated professor begging his class to DO THE DAMN READING. Mueller took to the podium to officially resign from his role of special counsel now that the report has been written, and to highlight the conclusions in said report.

The former FBI director stated that Trump is not NOT a criminal, explaining that the only reason why his office didn’t consider charges was because of a longstanding Department of Justice decision that a sitting president can’t be indicted. That’s a far cry from Trump’s (and his handpicked Attorney General with coverups on his resume) insistence that Mueller’s report is a “complete and total exoneration.”

Mueller’s statement was almost as damning for House Democrats as it was for the White House. He was keen to note that while the DoJ can’t charge the president with a crime, Congress can, in a process called impeachment.

Impeachment is the remedy to a lawless executive built in by the Founding Fathers, who fought a war against an absolute ruler with no accountability. Mueller was calling on the House to do their damn job and rebuffing their insistence on stalling until he testifies for them. “Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report…the report is my testimony,” he said.

Democratic presidential candidates—both the ones you have heard of and the ones you haven’t—are hearing Mueller’s subtext and using “the I word.”

AOC — not a presidential candidate until at least 2024 — also had a good tweet.

Trump, for his part, isn’t even pretending to be innocent anymore. The president took to Twitter to gloat that he wasn’t charged, even though Mueller had said that he only wasn’t charged because he is president.

What’s more important than the president’s reaction, however, is the memes.

The ball is in your court, Congress.





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Content moderation and censorship: can we handle a double standard?

On 25 April 2019, Vice Motherboard journalists Joseph Cox and Jason Koebler reported that during a recent Twitter company meeting a comment was made that:

Twitter hasn’t taken the same aggressive approach to white supremacist content [as it has to ISIS] because the collateral accounts that are impacted can, in some instances, be Republican politicians. The employee argued that, on a technical level, content from Republican politicians could get swept up by algorithms aggressively removing white supremacist material.

Indeed, it is well-known that most machine-learning algorithms in use in content moderation lead to a significant number of false positives (i.e. extremist content which turns out not to be). Even those that are sophisticated enough to correctly identify a vast majority of material correctly are likely to have these ‘false flags’, which when scaled up to millions of posts, inevitably causes non-extremist material to be flagged. Indeed, many archivists of human rights abuses of the Syrian Civil War, as an issue that Dima Saber is currently researching, have had their content removed from YouTube for this reason: their content was flagged incorrectly as extremist.

The use of machine-learning tools to enhance content moderation is inevitable, given the scale of the content that needs to be moderated and profit motives guiding social media companies. False positives, then, will also be inevitable.

When is extremism extremism?

What Cox and Koebler’s piece points out is that we are more willing to accept these false positives when it comes to the consensus against ISIS content. This is inevitably more complex when the current administration in the US, Republican politicians, and right-wing social movements ­– who have much more capacity to pressurize social media platforms than those who are swept up in content moderation as ISIS false positives – have constantly accused social media platforms of censoring legitimate conservative voices. Thus, a false positive that sweeps up someone allied with the broader right-wing ecosystem online can result in significant backlash against these companies. We can therefore hypothesize that political pressure has an effect on how and when these machine-learning tools are deployed.

It becomes imperative that we think therefore about the power relations that are at play in the use of machine-learning and the risks of false positives. Antecedent claims about conservative censorship have created a situation in which deployment of technology to counter white extremist, white nationalist, or white supremacist content cannot be treated in the same way as Islamic extremist content.

This has led to two outcomes that ought to be considered. First, the antecedent claim of conservative censorship provides a shield for white extremists to continue to operate on platforms like Twitter without the same scrutiny that is applied to other extremist groups. By accusing bias before takedowns happen, conservative discourse has ensured that takedowns are framed as somehow inappropriate – a “liberal elite” bias against conservatives as well as a censure of “alternative” viewpoints.

Prominent conservatives like Ted Cruz and Nigel Farage use their positions of power to accuse technology companies of bias against them. In doing so, they are instrumental in producing a framework that shields right-wing extremist ideas from the full force of automated content moderation – and thus a larger fight against extremism on the internet.

Double standards

This then leads to a reticence on the part of social media companies to counter white extremism in the same way, probably due to political risk. If Republican politicians will face account suspension alongside white extremists, it is likely that the claim of “conservative censorship” will be made more credible, and that these companies will face increased scrutiny from allied political groups and social movements.

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The claims made by conservatives about “free speech” and their “censorship” at the hands of the technology industry has become the raison d’être for rapid changes in the networked ecosystem of the radical right online. They are increasingly moving to encrypted messaging (like Telegram) and blogs that are not regulated by content moderators, or alternative-tech social media sites (like
More insidious is that the claims about “censorship” have been particularly effective in ensuring that a double standard exists in practice. ISIS is meant to be banned, and those innocent individuals caught up in their extremism as collateral damage have significantly less capacity to seek restitution. There is a consensus that this is an acceptable price to pay for limiting ISIS’s capacity to use mainstream platforms.

White extremism, on the other hand, receives the benefit of less aggressive algorithmic policing. Given the comments raised in Cox and Koebler’s investigation, it is clear that – in anticipation of claims that Twitter is biased against conservative voices – this has an effect on its decision making to counter white extremism using algorithmic tools.

Decentering machine-learning

I believe there may be a way out of this dilemma, and it involves decentering machine-learning. First, it is important for tech companies to focus its approach not on content but on people – who have been clearly identified as white nationalists by various groups – and disrupting the networks they belong to.

Rather than searching for content, tech companies should be searching for the key nodes that spread white extremist content on social networks. This would not require the same types of machine-learning tools, but rather, attention to and monitoring of identifiable hate networks. This could help to ensure fewer false positives, but could be scaled up in semi-automated ways to identify key communication pathways in white extremist networks – thus disrupting them.

Furthermore, machine-learning could also be useful in identifying hateful networks and building a complete picture of white extremist ecosystems as they emerge and sustain themselves on specific platforms. It is a useful tool in profiling networks of users, and determining what action is legitimate in order to disrupt and destabilise those networks.

Thus, user suspension and content takedown might be focused on network disruption, and machine-learning tools can be used to provide justification of why a user ought to be taken down as well as to identify the size and membership of these networks.

This would not assuage the bad-faith claims of “censorship” that shield white extremism, but it would go a long way towards eliminating false positives from content-focused machine-learning tools, re-purposing them towards building a picture of toxic networks and developing processes to destabilise and disrupt them.

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The murder that didn’t happen

It felt like daytime under the lights outside Arkady Babchenko’s apartment block. It was a late May evening in 2018, and television crews were trying to force their way into the apartment block on Kyiv’s left bank, but the police had closed off the entrance. Medics carried out the body of the famous Russian journalist on a stretcher.

An unknown man had shot Babchenko, a war correspondent, as he entered his own apartment. Shortly after, the Ukrainian police reported that Babchenko had died en route to the hospital.

“They took me to the morgue, where they brought me into an orderly’s room,” Babchenko told the BBC a few days later. “There I came back to life, I took off my t-shirt and cleaned myself up. I turned on the TV and started watching the news about my ‘murder’.”

Indeed, there was a lot of news about the killing. Politicians close to Ukrainian law enforcement immediately accused the Russian authorities of the murder. Babchenko, known for his criticism of the Kremlin, had left Russia in 2017 after receiving threats against his life. At a UN Security Council meeting the following day, 30 May, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin also spoke about the murder’s possible “Russian clients”.

“Today, the Security Service of Ukraine [SBU] has information that it was the Russian security services who ordered the murder of Arkady Babchenko,” Vasyl Hrytsak, chief of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), said a few hours later at a press briefing.

Hrytsak ended the briefing with the words “Arkady, you’re on”, and, with a gesture of the hand, presented the “resurrected” journalist to his shocked colleagues.

Arkady Babchenko's "resurrection". Source: 112.

The SBU claimed at the time that even though Babchenko’s murder was staged, there had been a real plan to kill him. The man who was supposed to carry out the hit, a former monk called Oleksiy Tsymbalyuk, had risen to some prominence in military circles as a volunteer fighter in the war in eastern Ukraine. Tsymbalyuk had contacted the Ukrainian security services of his own accord three months earlier, and handed over the man who apparently ordered the killing. The latter, who had promised to pay Tsymbalyuk $40,000 for the hit (if successful), was arrested the day after the “murder”.

The actions of the security services outraged both Ukrainian and Russian journalists, as well as world leaders who had believed in the “murder” and the “Russian connection”. But the SBU and General Prosecutor’s Office had a justification: this staged special operation was necessary in order to catch not only the man who ordered the hit, but also a list of the Kremlin’s other potential victims.

This list quickly became one of the first mystifications in the investigation: different sources gave different numbers of names on it (sometimes 30, sometimes 47). These people were journalists, politicians, left-wing and right-wing activists. In short, the selection was a chaotic one. Some were called in for questioning by the SBU as witnesses. They were asked to sign what were, in effect, non-disclosure agreements, and the security services offered them bodyguards for protection. Others weren’t even contacted.

The ensuing investigation was supposed to prove the role of the Russian security services in the attempt on Babchenko’s life, as well as other subversive activity in Ukraine. But a year on after the “Babchenko case” began, there’s neither transparency, nor serious evidence.


The first person to be arrested in the investigation was Borys Herman, a 50-year-old businessman based in Kyiv, the capital. In Herman’s messages to Oleksiy Tsymbalyuk, which are part of the investigation materials, he discusses on several occasions surveillance on Babchenko, the timeline for the “order” and the necessary weapons.

Herman was the co-owner of a range of logistic and trade firms, as well as a Ukrainian-German firearm company, Schmeisser. Indeed, it was in connection to the latter that Herman already had a criminal background when he was arrested: the Ukrainian police suspected that Schmeisser company registration documents had been tampered with, and one of the shareholders had lost their shares as a result.

Borys Herman's arrest.

Herman had also been previously suspected of illegal firearms possession. Schmeisser allegedly repaired weapons for volunteer battalions fighting on the Ukrainian side in the Donbas. Oleksiy Tsymbalyuk, the prospective “killer”, transported spare weapons parts and ammunition to Schmeisser from the front.

At the first court hearing, Herman called himself a patriot and a Ukrainian counterintelligence agent, who had also been involved in the “Babchenko operation”. According to Herman, he received the order to kill Babchenko from Vyacheslav Pivovarnik, an old comrade and business partner who worked for a so-called “Putin Foundation”, which had been set up to destabilise Ukraine, finance opposition political parties and street protests.

Herman claimed that he had contacted Tsymbalyuk because he knew that the former monk also collaborated with the security services – and would not go through with the murder. “But we didn’t reveal our hand,” Herman said in court. “We understood that there’s a lot of moles from the Russian security services in the SBU.”

The SBU denied the claim that they had a relationship with Herman. But still, Herman quickly struck a deal with the investigation. The court sessions were closed to the public on the pretext that the investigation should remain secret, as well as possible security risks for suspects.

At the end of the summer 2018, Herman admitted that he had prepared a terrorist act against Babchenko, as well as the illegal sale of weapons. The sentence was announced in a closed court hearing, and is still yet to be made public. Instead, it’s only known that Herman received four and a half years in prison – less than the minimum term set out by Ukrainian law for these kind of serious offences.

Since the end of 2018, Herman has been serving his sentence in a prison colony near Kyiv. Almost immediately he appealed for early release on the basis of his health, and a local court has been examining this appeal for several months. These hearings are also being held in camera on the insistence of Herman’s lawyer Yevhen Solodko, one of the most highly paid criminal lawyers in Kyiv.

Was Borys Herman really a Ukrainian counterintelligence agent? Did he order the hit on Arkady Babchenko with the security services’ knowledge? Solodko, Herman’s lawyer, says yes.

In correspondence with openDemocracy, Solodko even revealed the name of Herman’s supposed “curator” from the Ukrainian security services – the man who potentially possesses Herman’s agent file. This man, Dmytro Ponomarenko, is apparently a former director of yet another Ukrainian firearms producer. openDemocracy unsuccessfully tried to contact Ponomarenko via telephone to confirm this information.

A trip to Rostov

Messages between Borys Herman and his business partner Vyacheslav Pivovarnik, who spent more than a year living in Russia, became the investigation’s main evidence of the “Russian connection” in the Babchenko case. Indeed, it was this correspondence that led the investigation to identify another suspect.

Taras Stelmanshenko, 40, was arrested in mid-June 2018. According to the investigation, Pivovarnik sent the passport details of Stelmashenko and two residents of Cherkasy, in central Ukraine, on to Herman in order to arrange their transport from the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don to Kyiv. The Ukrainian security services quickly announced that the group had been in Rostov for training on carrying out terrorist attacks in Ukraine. During the search of Stelmashenko’s apartment, law enforcement found a pistol.

Speaking to openDemocracy, Stelmashenko called himself an “independent artist”. In court, prosecutors talked about his possible connections with a local criminal group in Cherkasy (“Torpedo”) – Kostyantyn Krivich, a member of this gang, was detained for an arson attack on a Hungarian cultural centre in the west Ukrainian town of Uzhhorod.

Stelmashenko spent more than six months in jail before unexpectedly being released, having admitting his guilt and receiving a suspended sentence for illegal firearm possession. In a comment to openDemocracy, the General Prosecutor’s Office stated that they did not find evidence of Stelmashenko’s involvement in the attempted murder of Babchenko.

In an interview with openDemocracy after release, Stelmashenko claimed that he only found out that Babchenko even existed after his arrest, and that he did undergo training in Rostov, but for work in a private security firm.

Special agent

Vyacheslav Pivovarnik presents a similar version of events. He arranged Stelmashenko’s trip to Rostov, apparently on the request of an acquaintance who was, according to Pivovarnik, looking to organise a personal security detail.

The Ukrainian security services have been searching for Pivovarnik for a year now. They believe he is the principal client of the attempted murder, and that he acted under the auspices of the Russian security services. For a long time his identity remained a mystery, but in autumn 2018 – after Borys Herman struck a deal with the investigation – Pivovarnik posted a video on YouTube where he claimed that he was, in fact, a Ukrainian intelligence agent, and had been since 2010.

Back then, according to Pivovarnik, he was working at an institute in Kyiv – the Institute of Geopolitical and Economic Research, an “expert centre” run by ex-intelligence chief Oleksandr Skipalskyi. The latter is a former deputy director of the SBU and runs an organisation for security service veterans. Indeed, according to Pivovarnik, it was Skipalskyi who recruited him, proposing that he “expose enemies of Ukrainian statehood”.

In a comment to openDemocracy, Skipalsky said that he does not remember Pivovarnik. During the interview, he also recalled that a man named Sergey Deyev had also worked at the institute. The latter, who died five years ago, was a business partner of Pivovarnik’s.

According to Pivovarnik, it was cooperation with the Ukrainian security services that led to success in his main area of business – contraband goods. Pivovarnik is registered as the co-founder and director of several logistics companies, but he calls this cover for illegal imports and exports. “We transported everything apart from weapons, alcohol and cigarettes. It’s people who are higher up that are involved in that,” he says to openDemocracy during a Skype interview.

Pivovarnik claims that he traveled to Russia to collect information on Russia’s weapons industry – a task set by his curator at the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence’s Main Intelligence Directorate, known by its acronym GUR.

“Russia and Ukraine have been competing in the military business for many years,” he says, “and information on export contracts or companies that provide spare parts is always very valuable.”

But Pivovarnik claims that his alleged curators from the Ministry of Defence quickly changed their plans, and suggested that he attempt to provoke the team of Vladislav Surkov, an aid to Vladimir Putin, into ordering a series of terrorist acts in Ukraine. A prominent “political technologist”, Surkov is known for “curating” Russian activities in Donbas, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. According to Pivovarnik, he made contact with a deputy of Surkov’s, Inal Ardzinba, and offered him the contract on Babchenko.

“We had to demonstrate to the Russians that there was an underground organisation in Ukraine which was capable of carrying this out,” Pivovarnik claims, “then get evidence of the deal and expose the fact that Russia was sponsoring terrorism to the whole world.” He adds that this alleged mission was unsuccessful. After several meetings, Ardzinba apparently declined the proposal.

“When I reported this back to Kyiv, I was told that it was too late to back out. The process had already begun,” Pivovarnik alleges. “But I didn’t expect that they would make me into the principal client.”

It’s difficult to verify Pivovarnik’s claims: the SBU calls them a lie, and Dmitry Poida, the man who allegedly organised the introduction between Ardzinba and Pivovarnik, denied knowing either of them in correspondence with openDemocracy.

Pivovarnik shared screenshots of chats with Andriy Kapustin, his alleged curator from the GUR. The messages, which openDemocracy has copies of, discuss details of contraband deals, and at the beginning of June 2018 – Borys Herman’s testimony in court.

Pivovarnik’s interlocutor suggests that the former return to Ukraine and take responsibility for the operation. In exchange, the interlocutor promises a “bonus and a good life”. OpenDemocracy could not confirm the veracity of these messages: a man by the name of Andriy Kapustin did serve in the SBU until 2016, and then in the GUR until 2017. At a minimum, one of the telephone numbers used in the chats does belong to Andriy Kapustin, but he did not respond to the author’s calls or messages.

A pariah

Pivovarnik himself claims that he left Russia in summer 2018: first he crossed the border into Ukraine illegally, and then travelled to Hungary. He refuses to return to Ukraine and appear before investigators: he is afraid for his life.

In December 2018, the SBU finished its investigation into Pivovarnik and transferred the case to court – he will be tried for committing a terrorist act in absentia. But after five months, the trial is yet to begin – the initial hearing has been postponed several times, and at the last hearing, on 20 May, one of the three presiding judges recused herself.

“No one wants to hear this case because it’s a stitch-up,” Valentyn Rybin, Pivovarnik’s lawyer, claims. Rybin is known for defending Russian soldiers captured by Ukraine, as well as a series of suspects accused of state treason and spying for Russia.

Rybin claims that the charges against Pivovarnik are based solely on Borys Herman’s testimony, which was given as part of a deal with the investigation. The Ukrainian security services, whose leadership was recently changed by Ukraine’s new president Volodymyr Zelensky, still refuses to comment on the Babchenko case until verdicts are handed down to all suspects.

Arkady Babchenko himself does not know details of the case. The investigation does not officially consider him a victim – a status that would permit him access to investigation materials. But that does not prevent Babchenko from naming the man he believes is the principal client of the attempted hit on him – Evgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman close to Vladimir Putin, and who founded the now infamous Russian private security firm Wagner.

In Babchenko’s opinion, the plan to kill him was Prigozhin’s personal revenge for the journalist’s investigation into Wagner’s activities, as well as an attempt to destabilise the situation in Ukraine. Speaking to openDemocracy, Babchenko admits that he came to this conclusion on the basis of “logical conclusions from well-known facts”.

In December 2018, Babchenko applied to the European Court of Human Rights, accusing the Russian authorities of harassment and attempting to kill him. That same month, Time magazine gave their annual nomination for “Person of the Year” to a group of journalists from across the world – journalists who were killed, imprisoned or attacked for their professional work. The US magazine also named Arkady Babchenko in the nomination, noting that he had become a “pariah for certain colleagues” as a result of the staged murder.i

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Was Rashan Charles unconscious when police handcuffed him?

One day in June last year, an expert medical witness told an inquest jury that Rashan Charles was unconscious when two unidentified men (one a police officer) handcuffed him during a lethal restraint in London in July 2017. That summer in England Rashan was one of four young black men to die during or after police restraint.

Rashan Charles was 20 years old. He died in the early hours of Saturday 22 July 2017 on the floor of the Yours Locally shop on Kingsland Road in Hackney, East London.

A police officer from the Metropolitan Police Service's Territorial Support Group pursued Rashan into the convenience store, grabbed him from behind, threw him to the floor, then restrained and handcuffed him with the help of a man police described as a “member of the public”. Neither man’s identity may be revealed.

The incident was caught on the store’s CCTV cameras, and also by police body worn cameras (bodycams)—but only in part. The police officer who restrained Rashan failed to activate his bodycam until late in the incident. Another officer’s footage was, according to the police watchdog, “not retained” and the police were “unable to confirm if this was due to human or computer error”.

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We’ve been investigating this fatal incident, on and off, since the day after Rashan died, when the Metropolitan Police Service claimed that he was “taken ill” after “trying to swallow an object”, and that police “intervened and sought to prevent the man from harming himself”. The BBC reported the official version without question.

That same day we published the first report to challenge the official story. Clare Sambrook analysed footage from the store. It had been recorded by mobile phone off a CCTV monitor and shared online in the hours after Rashan’s death. Clare’s article described the police officer’s grab from behind, the hard throw to the ground, the prolonged restraint, the forceful participation of the second man in restraining Rashan.

Since then we have compiled a searchable database of second-by-second images taken from original super-clear CCTV footage that is not in the public domain. We’ve used this to inform our analysis and investigation.

Rod Charles, Rashan’s great uncle and a retired Metropolitan Police Chief Inspector, has brought expertise in public order, control and restraint and informed scrutiny to our analysis of the actions of the highly trained officer who restrained Rashan and the “member of the public” who joined in.

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi attended the pre-inquest hearing in November 2017, and every day of the two-week inquest in June 2018 at St Pancras Coroner’s Court, taking detailed notes of more than 40 hours’ worth of material on: police training on use of force, discussion of medical evidence, five statements from absent witnesses, evidence from 14 witnesses in person, repeated viewings of footage from CCTV and police body worn cameras.

Last year we broke off from our work to raise funds to continue. Lately we’ve returned to the case.

Today we examine the medical evidence the jury heard on Thursday 14 June 2018, the last day of evidence at the inquest. On that day, three pathologists, one reporting to the coroner, one on behalf of the Police Federation, one for the family of Rashan Charles, agreed that the cause of death was cardiac arrest due to obstruction of his upper airway by a foreign body. This was a package that Rashan was said to have concealed in his mouth soon after he entered the convenience store.

The jury was told that the package, found to contain paracetamol and caffeine, measured 60mm x 70mm. (The third dimension wasn’t provided.)

How did restraint contribute to Rashan’s death?

The pathologists disagreed on how restraint contributed to Rashan’s death. Pathologist for the coroner, Dr Robert Chapman, said restraint may have contributed to Rashan’s death, but was not the cause of death. He didn’t think Rashan was restrained for an inappropriate period of time.

Professor Peter Vanezis, the pathologist instructed by the family, said Rashan died during a period of restraint — an opinion the jury echoed in their verdict.

Vanezis said the restraint would have made it more difficult for Rashan to expel the package and stop himself from choking.

He said the CCTV footage showed that when the police officer took Rashan to the ground, his arm was around Rashan’s neck for a short while. Vanezis ruled out positional asphyxia as a cause of death.

He said it was “quite clear” that Rashan had been taken to the floor where there was “quite a bit of struggle”. Rashan was held down, but there was no evidence of assault, he said.

Ashley Fegan-Earl, the pathologist instructed by the Police Federation, said that if restraint contributed to Rashan’s death, it was only where it may have prevented Rashan from expelling any obstruction.

Was Rashan unconscious when they handcuffed him?

Dr Jasmeet Soar, an independent expert in cardiac arrest and resuscitation, gave evidence about the restraint.

The court repeatedly viewed CCTV footage of the police officer throwing Rashan to the ground and restraining him, and the “member of the public” joining in the restraint and helping the officer to handcuff Rashan.

Soar said he was confident that Rashan had already lost consciousness at the point he was handcuffed.

Due to the coroner's anonymity ruling the officer and the “member of the public” were known by cyphers BX47 and Witness 1. A second officer, a police medic who arrived during the restraint’s final moments, and administered CPR, was known as BX48.

Dr Jasmeet Soar repeatedly told the court that he was certain, from looking at the footage, that Rashan had already gone into cardiac arrest when police medic BX48 arrived, the handcuffs were removed, Rashan was turned onto his back and CPR commenced. The coroner asked Soar to talk the jury through the shop’s CCTV footage and the partial footage from the police officers’ bodycams. Soar pointed to one particular moment. Rashan is on the ground and being restrained by BX47, just before Witness 1 joins in.

Soar alerted the jurors to Rashan’s eyes. They were “slightly staring”, he said. Rashan’s hand briefly goes up towards his face, somewhere near his eye. “It could be that he is stiffening up because he is having trouble breathing,” said Dr Soar. “Or, it could be a purposeful movement.”

He said it was difficult to tell whether the movement of Rashan’s hand was purposeful. He is clearly unwell, but his precise state is uncertain, Soar said. Then Witness 1 joins the restraint. He and BX47 handcuff Rashan, then turn him on his side. Soar said: “Around this time I say I’m fairly confident that he is unconscious.”

Soar said the only movement from Rashan after this point is a clenching of the jaw and staring vacantly, and these things were “compatible with being unconscious”. He added that there is no obvious purposeful eye movement, no response from Rashan when a lot of things are being done to him.

Was Rashan biting, or not?

Witness 1 can be heard on the police bodycam footage telling Rashan: “Stop biting my finger. I’m trying to help you.”

This is after Rashan is handcuffed, after Soar says he thinks Rashan is unconscious. On day three of the inquest, Witness 1 was questioned about this. He admitted that he couldn’t be sure that Rashan was in fact biting.

The coroner asked Soar for his opinion. He said it was possible to misinterpret a clenched jaw for biting.

Earlier in the inquest, people who had been in the shop and witnessed the restraint said they saw Rashan struggling to breathe, or having a seizure.

Lawyers for the police suggested over and over again that Rashan showed no “classic” signs of choking.

They asked witness after witness if Rashan was spluttering, coughing or gasping for breath, as if it were impossible to choke quietly.

The witnesses said he wasn’t coughing, spluttering or gasping for breath.

Dr Jasmeet Soar, the expert in cardiac arrest and resuscitation, told the court that it was easy for him to identify that Rashan was struggling to breathe — in hindsight, with his experience, knowing there was something in Rashan’s mouth and having access to video evidence.

He said: “There is no obvious point where you would suspect choking. . . It’s not obvious unless the context is right.”

If there are no obvious signs of choking, and someone appears unconscious or unresponsive, what should you do? Soar said: check for breathing.

Depending on their responsiveness, you would uncuff the person, get them to a standing or seated position, administer back blows and abdominal thrusts. Hopefully, this would dislodge the foreign body, he said.

The coroner responded that to do this you would need to know they are choking.

Soar said if they are choking properly they won’t be able to talk. Even after Rashan has lost consciousness, Soar continued, if someone had retrieved the foreign body, then, “on the balance of probabilities” Rashan would have survived.

He said: “Once cardiac arrest happens, on balance of probabilities it becomes non-survivable.” That is why when someone is choking, you are supposed to start CPR once they lose consciousness.

The coroner persisted. She said again, you have to know they are choking to start CPR. Soar replied that even if you can’t tell someone is choking, if they aren’t breathing normally, if they are unresponsive and unconscious, you start CPR.

The coroner asked Soar if a decision to start CPR would depend on seeing that Rashan was not breathing normally.

Soar answered that CPR should be administered as soon as Rashan stops making obvious breaths.

But the coroner insisted: “We don’t know he is not breathing normally at this stage.”

After prolonged questioning from the coroner and police lawyers, Soar told the court he could not pinpoint the exact moment Rashan stopped breathing normally just by looking at the footage. Testing for normal breathing relies on listening and feeling, as well as looking for particular signs, he said.

Soar said that from the footage alone, he could be certain that Rashan isn’t breathing normally only when the late-arriving officer, BX48, has uncuffed him, rolled him onto his side and is about to start CPR.

“I don’t see any signs of respiratory effort,” he said. “If it was there, it was minimal.”

Before police medic BX48 arrives, it is difficult to judge Rashan’s breathing from the footage, because at times his face is obscured from view, Soar said. When questioned further Soar said that you don’t go from 'normal' to 'stopped breathing', there is a period of deterioration.

The package

The inquest had already heard from Peter Fisher, a London Ambulance Service paramedic, who arrived on the scene shortly after police medic BX48. Fisher told the court that the first time he looked into Rashan’s throat he couldn’t see an obstruction.

After a few chest compressions, Fisher said, Rashan vomited. Fisher looked into his throat again. This time, he said, he saw the package at Rashan’s vocal chords, around his Adam’s apple. He used a suction machine and then forceps to pull the package out.

The jury asked: what happened between the first and second examination? Fisher replied that the package was likely below Rashan’s vocal chords until he vomited, and then it appeared. But Soar, the expert in cardiac arrest and resuscitation, disagreed with that analysis.

Soar had studied the CCTV footage of the paramedics treating Rashan on the shop floor. He said that Fisher could have missed the package when he looked the first time — he didn’t look for very long. “I think it was always there,” Soar said. “Once he had done a bit of suction he was able to pull it out with forceps.”

Soar said he couldn’t see any way for the package to get down to the stomach and all the way back up again. More likely it stayed lodged in Rashan’s windpipe until the suctioning and forceps removed it.

Prevention of future deaths

The jury heard eight days of evidence over two weeks from police officers, paramedics, pathologists, and from people who had happened to be there in the shop. They also heard from two men, presented as independent experts on police safety training, who, between them, had 75 years combined service to the Metropolitan Police.

The inquest closed on Wednesday 20 June 2018. The jury returned a narrative verdict and said Rashan’s death was an accident. The coroner, Mary Hassell, in her directions to the jury, had not left open the possibility of a more critical conclusion such as neglect or unlawful killing. She said she did not believe “a reasonable jury could see this”.

The coroner's primary duty is to determine how somebody came by their death. Where there is the potential to prevent future deaths, the coroner is obliged to write a report and make recommendations. On 29 June 2018 Coroner Mary Hassell completed such a report relating to the death of Rashan Charles. She addressed it to Deputy Assistant Commissioner Matt Twist of the Metropolitan Police Service.

In her Prevention of Future Death Report report Hassell asserts:

That description—“there was a struggle during which the officer detained him”—might suggest a scuffle, a fight, Rashan resisting arrest before he was thrown to the floor. But the video evidence played repeatedly at the inquest shows Rashan complying with the police officer, exhibiting no violence, no hint of resistance, before the hard throw to the ground.

The coroner’s report asserts that Rashan lost consciousness after being handcuffed. This assertion is not supported by the video evidence: when Rashan is handcuffed, he is face down on the floor, completely still. Witness 1 takes Rashan’s limp right hand behind his back and passes it, for BX47 to apply handcuffs. Nor does it reflect the opinion of Dr Jasmeet Soar, the independent expert in cardiac arrest and resuscitation, who said he was confident that Rashan had already lost consciousness at the point he was handcuffed.

Our work continues.

Edited by Clare Sambrook and Annissa Warsame for Shine A Light. Read about the verdict here. An explainer on the story here.

*Shine A Light is a small independent project. We’re grateful for funding from the Bertha Foundation and the Roddick Foundation. We are keen to hear from other funders who might consider helping us to support more journalists to investigate contentious state-related deaths and train young reporters in this field. We welcome reader donations of any size.

If you’d like to donate, contact us:

Europe’s vote and Italy’s right-wing bloc

Flat tax, privileges to rich regions, restrictions on migrants, emphasis on "security". This is Matteo Salvini's agenda for the Italian government in the aftermath of the European elections. The ‘Lega’ (League), the party he leads, now running the country in coalition with the Five Star Movement, has won big on May 26 obtaining 34.3% of the votes; five years ago the Lega had 6.2%, and in last year’s political vote it reached 17%. With Berlusconi’s Forza Italia at 8.8% and the post-fascists of ‘Brothers of Italy’ at 6.5%, the right-wing bloc in Italy has half of the votes.

The Five Star Movement collapsed to 17.1%, losing half of the votes compared to the political elections of 2018 and is down compared to the 21.2% of the European elections of 2014. The Democratic Party (PD) has reached 22.7%, a modest recovery after the fall to 18.7% in 2018, against the 40.8% of the European elections five years ago, at the beginning of the short-lived era of Matteo Renzi.

In absolute terms, with voters falling from 73% in 2018 to 56% last Sunday, the shifts are more contained. The right-wing bloc has received 13 million votes against 12 million in 2018, with the Lega increasing from 5.7 to 9.1 million votes, absorbing voters from Forza Italia, while ‘Brothers of Italy’ increased their absolute votes. The Democratic Party has kept its 6 million votes. The Five Stars have lost half of the votes obtained last year, with voters choosing the Lega or abstention.

Consolidated right-wing reality

Two facts now dominate Italian politics in the European context. The first is the consolidation of a right-wing bloc under the leadership of Matteo Salvini. This is a real social bloc rooted in the combination of 'fear and poverty', the mix that was already visible in the 2018 elections: the fear of losing ground, identity and future, and the impoverishment that has affected 90% of Italians.

Italy’s right-wing bloc has found in Salvini a leader capable of dominating the political discourse, occupying the media, fueling racism, building a real political hegemony both within the center-right coalition, that he has managed to keep intact, and within the government with the Five Stars Movement who, concerned about staying in power a few more months, will be unable to break the alliance with Salvini and choose another route.

In terms of policies, the right-wing bloc shapes the 'lib-pop' agenda of the current government, a mix of liberalism – flat tax, deregulation, tax amnesties – and populism in social policies – easier retirement terms and a start for the ‘citizenship income’ – an agenda that finds approval well beyond the core supporters of the right, among business and among many 'losers' in the peripheral areas of the country.

What about the European picture? Europe’s vote has shown the strength of the right-wing, nationalist and populist vote, but we are very far from the consolidation of a right-wing bloc on a European scale, capable of affecting EU policies. The right-wing bloc rules Italy, Poland and Hungary; it came out first in the election results in France with Marine Le Pen and in the United Kingdom with the Brexit Party, but has no impact on the balance of power and on the government of such countries.

It has a significant weight in Austria (where the extreme right has been pushed out of government) and Belgium, and appears to have stabilized in a political niche in Germany, Greece, Spain and Northern Europe; in no country does it express its hegemony over the political system and society that we find in Italy, Poland and Hungary.

Within the European Council – where governments sit – these three countries have no weight in European decisions; Poland and Hungary have been repeatedly put under scrutiny and Italy will continue to stay on the sidelines.

In the European Parliament, the success of the right is very limited, moving from 20 to 23% of the seats, with its deputies likely to divide into two or three political groups with an uneasy cooperation among them. The influence of the right on European politics is therefore likely to be limited, given the consistent emphasis on national politics that drives these political formations. Without an ability to influence Parliament and the appointments at the top posts in the Commission and European Central Bank, let alone change European rules, the right – especially in Italy – has moderated the anti-Brussels tones that a year ago characterized the national elections and the formation of the government.

Italy’s right-wing bloc will only try to get more leeway in economic terms, and we may expect that the new Commission will not want to clash with Rome on this. European politics could thus prolong its immobility and persist in its neoliberal agenda, adding occasional social concessions.

Populist bubble bursts

The second result of Europe’s elections is the bursting of the populist bubble. In Italy the collapse of the Five Star vote reflects the inconsistency of their political project and their inability to run the government. The space for a populist policy that denies the ‘right-left’ divide has shrunk, confirming that such a project is nothing but the preparation of a shift to the right.

The results of the European vote dismantle the illusions of building a left-wing variant of populism. In Spain Unidas Podemos halves its seats in the European Parliament, caught between the recovery of the Socialist party at the national scale and the strength of independentists in Barcelona. In Paris, France Insoumise led by Jean Luc Mélenchon is stuck at 6.3% of the votes. The other radical left forces in Greece, Portugal, Germany and Northern Europe have maintained their clear left-wing profile, obtaining mixed results: Alexis Tsipras has been defeated in Greece, and has called for new elections; in Portugal the left-wing parties have given external support to the Socialist government and have consolidated their consensus; the Linke in Germany has lost votes. If we consider the strong fall of almost all Socialdemocratic parties (with the exceptions of Spain, Holland, Denmark and some other countries), the political void that opens on the left is evident, in a context where the ‘right-left’ divide returns to dominate politics.

What is then left of the opposition between élites and populism, between the ‘top’ and the 'bottom’' in politics that attracted so much attention in recent years? The right-wing bloc has been able to integrate the 'top' of national economic élites with the ‘bottom’ of the popular vote. At the ‘top’, the political representation of pro-European élites takes on new forms; in the European Parliament the rise of some forces in the Liberal group partly compensates for the losses of the Popular and Socialist parties, as in the case of Emmanuel Macron in France taking votes away from Gaullists and Socialists.

The Socialdemocrats are paralyzed – as they have been for two decades – before the choice between positioning themselves at the 'top', as ​​a party of the pro-European, neoliberal elites, close to the Macron model, or returning to their ‘left’ roots, to their class base, taking away space and voters from the populism of the right. The radical left is currently too fragmented and fragile to occupy such a space. The success of the Greens in some countries, Germany first of all, with a large youth vote, escapes a clear position, but has the potential to renew the horizon and agenda of what we still call the ‘left’.

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A shorter working week isn't a luxury – it's an ecological necessity

A shorter working week has re-emerged as a prominent subject of political and economic discussion in the U.K. in recent years, with the TUC, the Green Party and Labour taking a reduction of working hours seriously as a policy that could increase workers’ well-being, boost productivity and face the challenges of automation.

In Germany, the IG Metall, Europe’s largest industrial union, led a strike last year that mobilized 1.5 million workers and won the option to individually reduce working time from 35-hours per week to 28-hours per week, while securing the option to return to full-time employment afterwards.

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While a shorter working week is often framed as a tool to fix a broken economic model that is working for the few, rather than for the many, the increased interest in working time reductions coincides with the emergence of powerful global movements that highlight another crisis that is facing humanity today: the depletion of resources, the degradation of our natural environments and above all the rapid heating-up of our planet. Here, too, pressing issues of intra- and intergenerational justice emerge, with people in the global south and the poor more likely to suffer the fall-out of an economic system that largely favours the capital-owning class in the global north.

For decades now, the sustainability debate has largely been dominated by calls for ethical consumption, rather than facing the systemic root of the problem: an economic system that prioritizes profit-making over workers’ well-being and even the preservation of the very natural basis of our collective life. To develop a sustainable economic model, it is becoming clear that we need to break with the imperatives imposed by the necessities of capital accumulation (endless “growth”) and find a way to provide a decent standard of living while honouring planetary boundaries. At the same time, our current working time and lifestyle models are deeply intertwined with a fundamentally unsustainable economy, which demands us to endure long commutes due to overpriced housing and eat carbon-intensive, frozen foods since we lack the time to prepare decent quality meals ourselves.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made it clear that limiting global warming to 1.5°c above pre-industrial levels will require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society; even a quick glimpse into the statistics illustrates just how far-reaching and drastic these changes might need to be.

In this vein, I’ve authored a new paper for the think tank Autonomy that provides a stark thought experiment for us all to consider. Given the current carbon intensity of the economy of the U.K., and given the amount of carbon we are pumping into the atmosphere per hour worked, I estimate that staying within a sustainable carbon budget would require us to cut working times by almost 80 percent, making the new full-time working week a mere nine hours long.

The sheer magnitude of this reduction illustrates that the transformation towards a more sustainable economy needs to go beyond merely cutting back the worst fossil fuel based industries a little: instead, we need to revaluate our economic model and work regime more fundamentally, combining a move towards sustainable energy with a transformation of our transportation systems and a radical reduction in working hours.

Rather than discussing how to maximize profit, the climate crisis forces us to change the conversation and raise the question: provided current levels of carbon intensity of our economies and current levels of productivity, how much work can we actually afford? As my research paper shows, with even the most carbon efficient economies reaching peak sustainable working hours at around a 12 hour working week (given carbon budgets) – a figure close to the 15-hour work week heralded by John Maynard Keynes – we are reminded that a vast expansion of non-work time should be considered less of a luxury and more of an existential urgency.

In this spirit, one concrete and wide-ranging step following the declaration of a climate emergency in the UK could be the immediate introduction of a Four-Day Week as a transitional step: not just to improve the wellbeing and jobs of workers, but also to curb resource usage and greenhouse gas emissions to ensure a decent future for future generations.

This Liberian lawyer has withstood presidents, multinationals and militias

This article is part of an editorial partnership with the Fund for Global Human Rights.

Twenty-two years ago Alfred Brownell could see a problem. The government of his country, Liberia, was awarding contracts for the exploitation of natural resources without consulting local communities; forest and mineral resources were being taken away with no questions asked.

“It was at a time when a very notorious company called OTC and many other companies were cutting down the forest for timber and no benefit was going back to the people,” Brownell says.

Then a law student in the capital, Monrovia, Brownell challenged President Charles Taylor and his government on the operations of OTC – the Oriental Timber Company. The company was later found to be involved in arms smuggling, Taylor is in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity – and Alfred Brownell has just been awarded the African Goldman Environmental Prize for 2019 at a ceremony in San Francisco.

Brownell’s organisation, Green Advocates, has become a household name in Liberia as a champion of customary rights to land and natural resources for indigenous communities. He is helping thousands of people around the country to fight multinational companies and regain their rights.

Sowing seeds

In 2003 when the war to oust Taylor was raging in Monrovia, Brownell had just graduated with a degree in Environmental Law from Tulane Law School in New Orleans, Louisiana, the previous year. Green Advocates was still an idea and Brownell had no money – only a vision.

The Fund for Global Human Rights gave Green Advocates its first seed money in 2003 of $10,000 after Brownell returned to Liberia following the ouster of Taylor and Green Advocates began operations from a tiny office in Monrovia.

“We did not have a bank account; we were not a formal organisation,” recalls Brownell.

“The Fund for Global Human Rights had a lot of confidence in me. They awarded me the grant even without a formal structure in place.”

John Kabia works for The Fund for Global Human Rights as programme officer for thematic initiatives. He has worked closely with Green Advocates over the years and says that the lack of a track record meant that the Fund was taking a risk, but it was a risk worth taking.

“We feel at the Fund that our very reason for being is taking those smart risks, because that is the only way you can identify and support new and emerging actors and new ideas,” he says.

He says it is convenient for international donor organisations to support groups they already know. The threshold for approving support is set very high, making it difficult for small and emerging groups like Green Advocates to gain recognition and support to advance their work. However, seed funding can provide an organisation the necessary credibility and opportunities it needs to attract support from other funders and partners.

“Often times if people are given the opportunity and investment to turn their ideas into reality, you’d be amazed by what they can do. I think the example is Alfred and Green Advocates,” he says.

“Seeing how Alfred and the communities have mobilised and successfully pushed for major policy and legal reform is impressive. I think that type of smart risk-taking is what many other donors and development partners should be taking on.”

But for such risks to be sustainable, Kabia noted that it is critical for seed funding not to be a one-off, short-term support. “Change doesn’t happen overnight,” he says. “Long-term and capacity-building support needs to accompany an initial seed grant in order for promising organisations to thrive and reach their full potential.”

Big concessions, big government

Back in 2003, Liberia was just emerging from conflict and Brownell knew that the country lacked expertise on land and natural resources governance.

“It was sad to see a country with a natural-resource-endowed economy [where] its lawyers were not learning anything about natural resources or environmental laws,” says Brownell. “I said we have to use the law to help our people.”

“When I graduated, we worked to set up Green Advocates to provide support to the poor, marginalised, vulnerable, who had no voice. To focus our effort on creating policies to protect people through advocacy and campaigning for regulations.”

In 2005, Brownell partnered with over a dozen other local organisations and took on the transitional government of Liberia headed by the late Charles Gyude Bryant. It was the first post-war challenge to the government of Liberia by rights groups. The government had awarded contracts to a Chinese company for the shipment of iron ore from the port of Buchanan against the wishes of the citizens. A subpoena was issued by the Supreme Court of Liberia to stop it, but the government defied the court and shipped the ore anyway.

After successfully challenging a government contract to ship iron ore from the port of Buchanan against the wishes of local people, Brownell and Green Advocates began to expand their work. Both the government and the companies that profited from concessions to exploit Liberia’s natural resources began to see them as a threat. Green Advocates was involved in massive public sensitisation about land rights across the country, and started taking on companies as huge as the US tyre and rubber multinational Firestone, the Malaysian palm oil giant Sime Darby and Golden Agri-Resources, the world’s largest oil palm conglomerate – not to mention the government of Liberia itself.

One of the biggest cases involved Firestone, Liberia’s largest and oldest rubber concession-holder. For 75 years it had dumped all its waste into the Farmington River in the community of Owens Grove. That blatantly violated Liberian laws prohibiting the discharge of waste into the water system. Green Advocates filed complaints that led Firestone to create a waste treatment facility after almost a century of operations. The organisation also partnered with other rights groups in a US lawsuit that accused Firestone of using child labour. After six years of litigation Firestone won that case, but significantly the judge ruled that companies can be sued in the US for human rights abuses outside the country. In addition, Firestone was forced to introduce reforms that addressed the root causes of child labour in its plantation. This included reducing the quotas for workers, to prevent them having to bring their children to work, and building more schools within its concession area.

Doing it for the people

By this time Brownell was at odds with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who had become president in 2006. As Africa’s first elected female head of state she had won admirers around the world; in 2011 she shared the Nobel Peace Prize. But her international eulogists turned a blind eye to some dubious actions at home: by 2010 her government had awarded massive amounts of land to agriculture companies through a ‘backdoor’ scheme, despite agreeing to landmark land reform.

“You’re talking about 300,000 hectares of forest land without consulting the people” says Brownell. “There was no mapping or surveying to know where the land was, who grew what on the land or what the cultural impact was on the people.”

Massa P. Toure of the Natural Resources Women Platform knows what that impact feels like, however. She lives in Grand Cape Mount, a western county where Sime Darby operates. She had to abandon her ancestral home of Johnson Town and move to another town about two hours away because of the palm oil company’s expansion.

Toure’s life and that of her community has drastically changed since the coming of Sime Darby. She said the community has lost its identity. The mother of four, who is also a widow, said that local people were not consulted before the company came.

“They took away our land. They took away our traditional educational institutions. Everything has been damaged by the company,” she says.

“We did not know anything about rights, until Green Advocates came and started having meetings and talking to us about these rights. Green Advocates helped us understand land rights and women’s rights to land.”

She says that women who work for Sime Darby cannot complain about working conditions for fear of losing their jobs and stressed the importance of organisations like Green Advocates in pushing companies to respect people’s rights.

Brownell says that Green Advocates’ first grant from the Fund for Global Human Rights, and the organisation’s ongoing support over 16 years, has given other funders confidence to provide revenue that has supported other projects. For instance, Green Advocates has also gone on to establish the Alliance for Rural Democracy and the Natural Resources Women Platform, and was key to the formation of the Mano River Union Civil Society Natural Resource Rights and Governance Platform, which now covers eight west African countries.

The fight gets real

As Brownell was fighting to help communities understand their rights to the land and push companies to reform and make policies that would benefit the local population in the concession areas, he also faced a battle of his own. A battle for personal safety.

Brownell and his staff came near death on several occasions while on their many trips in rural areas. On one occasion, in Tarjuwon, Sinoe County, people had complained that Golden Veroleum Liberia had decided to construct an oil mill on a site that was used for annual religious worship. They resisted and Green Advocates was called in to help. Brownell and his colleagues went to Sinoe to see what was happening. On their way to the area, the team came under attack from militia that Brownell believes were working for the company.

The men, dressed in company security uniforms, had set up a roadblock. They were ex-combatants armed with machetes and sticks, according to Brownell. Brownell and his colleagues resigned themselves to death – until the intervention of the town chief.

“I had given up and was just praying to God. I had no idea how we were going to get out of there because we were completely surrounded by these men,” he says.

“We knew that the attack against us in Tarjuwon was not just the company. We think the government was also very complicit in those attacks to try to eliminate us,” he says. Brownell says the Liberian government has been behind several attacks, and felt his organisation was standing in the way of its development objectives. The government did not take kindly to Green Advocates trying to enlighten people on their right to the land and natural resources.

Francis Colee is head of programmes at Green Advocates and has worked on several court cases on land rights issues brought against the Liberian government. He says the government sometimes brands the organisation as anti-development, but its focus is to ensure good investment that protects the rights of people and not alter their livelihood.

“We have argued that it is good that we have investment, but we have also argued that we need to ensure a delicate balance between the protection of human rights, the environment and the investment,” says Colee.

“In most cases, what we have seen is that the project-targeted communities end up becoming worse off than they were before the coming of the investment.”

In 2016, the government accused Brownell of refusing to help give testimony in the trial of the Dutch businessman Guus Kouwenhoven, the former head of the Oriental Timber Corporation – Brownell’s first case. The Green Advocates office in Monrovia was raided and ransacked by plain-clothes police officers. Some of the staff were arrested. The police even went to his home and arrested his uncle when Brownell himself could not be found.

“It was a ploy to get me. They use the criminal justice system to threaten people,” he says.

“They made Liberia very unsafe for me when they started threatening me and so I was forced to flee with my family to come [to the US]. President Sirleaf has directly threatened me, in my face, ‘I will charge you with sedition’.”

In a strongly worded letter to the president of Liberia, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders condemned the attacks on Brownell, and through the support of the Fund for Global Human Rights and other groups he fled the country with his wife and children. He now serves as an associate research professor at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston. Green Advocates’ work in Liberia continues, even with Brownell in the US, through support from a team of dedicated local activists and Green Advocates staff.

Land rights at last

Despite the challenges, Green Advocates has helped ensure Liberia passed sweeping land reform legislation in 2018. Local communities now have the exclusive right to possess and use land for different purposes, and to lease it.

But there is still a long way to go in terms of actual impact on land rights despite these reforms, says Simpson Snoh, who represents the Alliance for Rural Democracy, a Liberian non-governmental body working closely with Green Advocates. Green Advocates is in the process of taking the message to the people, and helping to translate laws into action.

“After years of securing rights for its community partners,” says Brownell, “Green Advocates is currently exploring options for translating these rights into economic opportunities to address not just the bread-and-butter issues these communities face, but a business and development model that can co-exist with nature.”

Snoh says that with funding, local organisations can move quickly to help communities that are facing serious human rights abuses from multinational companies and governments. This is because community-based groups best understand the needs of the communities more and what the issues are.

Brownell echoes Snoh’s sentiments. He believes that international funders should be able to bet their money on local organisations like Green Advocates, just as The Fund for Global Human Rights did when the organisation was still just an idea. He feels Green Advocates has been able to enlighten the people on their basic human right – the right to own land.

“The government’s perception that there was free land or open spaces where they could give concessions to companies was a complete false assumption. All these years the government had lied,” he says.

“The future of Liberia is never ever going to be with massive foreign investment through transnational corporations coming to Liberia. Liberia’s future comes from its own people.”

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#Colombia the ghosts of war threaten peace

Political uncertainty, the objections towards the peace process and the ghosts of war haunt Colombia.

The country faces the challenge of complying with the peace accords and moving forward if it is to consolidate the post-conflict stage that is yet to occur despite 2 years having passed since the historic agreement was signed by ex-president Juan Manuel Santos, who later won a Nobel Peace Prize.

In the midst of a serious institutional crisis, the current president, Iván Duque, continues to be pulled in both directions by those who disagree with the peace accords, and the pressure of Colombian citizens and the international community.

Citizens demand that key structures of the peace agreements such as the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) is applied. It’s a matter of urgency that justice advances in Colombia, as should the reparation of the millions of victims of the civil war.

In order to go beyond the political game playing, economic interests and the barriers that the political elite wish to put in place, to comprehend this critical moment in the peace process, it is necessary to understand the following

The political tornado that is the JEP

A fundamental component of the peace accords is the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), a transitional justice mechanism that will take on the task of putting to trial actors accused of committing crimes during the war for the next 15 years.

In March of this year, president Duque presented 6 objections to the JEP, among which were objections to the principle of ‘no extradition’, guaranteed in the peace accords as a right of the victims so they may achieve justice, discover the truth, and receive reparation.

After intense discussions in the Senate regarding whether these objections should be passed, the president suffered a strong political backlash when they were defeated.

Subsequently, the resignation of the Attorney General occurred when the JEP refused to extradite Jesús Santrich, an ex-commander of the FARC. The JEP appealed to the guarantee of no extradition that is provided to ex-guerrilla fighters and that allows for adequate trials and investigations to take place.

“False positives” and the ghost of a not so distant past

A few days ago, a New York Times article revealed disturbing truths that put the government and Colombia’s military on a tightrope. Its author revealed that an army commander ordered his troops to double the quantity of criminals and rebels killed, captured or surrendered.

The commander also proclaimed that troops could not demand perfection whilst executing lethal operations and that a large margin of error was acceptable if it meant reaching targets. This revelations provoked a storm of death threats directed towards the journalist who had to abandon the country as a result.

This disturbing order creates a scenario where civilians can easily become victims of the army once more, one that is far too familiar after the false positives scandal of the early 2000s, when the armed forces murdered more than 2000 civilians passing them off as guerrilla fighters.

This was an attempt to increase numbers of ‘enemy casualties’ as part of the army’s strategy, something that sounds disturbingly familiar to Colombians reading the recent revelations.

The report caused such an uproar that Colombian army announced that it was retracting any order related to increasing operational results of its troops. With actions like this, the ghost of war is but a short distance away.

Failure to comply with the accords

The strongest critique in the midst of this institutional crisis in Colombia is the failure to comply with the promises laid out in the peace accords.

The uncertainty of the government in advancing with the JEP is one of the many factors that has caused around 3000 ex-guerrilla and paramilitary fighters to take up arms again. What’s more, the murders of social leaders and human rights defenders since the peace agreement has been signed has increased to at least 500.

An investigation by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies revealed that in spite of previous efforts to ensure the peace accords progress, only one third of compromises will be achieved in the time period agreed. The rest of the agreements will remain in the phase of either non or minimum implementation.

This panorama creates a scenario of red alert in a country that is trapped between fear of war and fear of defeat, where hegemonic interests continue threatening the peace accords as to not disturb the status quo and the current distribution of power.

Structural problems such as the huge concentration of land ownership, enormous inequality, and unprecedented violence are being perpetuated due to this resistance to change.

The patience of everyday Colombians is far from infinite, and people won’t wait forever for peace to arrive and positive change to occur.

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Veiling and revolutions: from Algeria to Sudan

In his famous essay, ‘Algeria Unveiled’, Frantz Fanon (1959, p. 35) writes: ‘The way people clothe themselves, together with the traditions of dress and finery that custom implies, constitutes the most distinctive form of a society’s uniqueness’. Protesting former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s absurd bid for a fifth term, Algerians flooded the streets angrily – yet peacefully, asking for political change.

On 1 March 2019, the female militant, Djamila Bouhired, joined the Algerian masses and marched for freedom in full solidarity with their demands. Received by roses and tears, the 'living martyr of the Algerian Revolution' fought another 'Battle of Algiers'. The following week, on the International Day of Women, Bouhired was joined by other heroines, such as Zohra Drif. Together, the women of Algeria proudly exhibited their algerianness by wearing the traditional Maghrebi veils, the Haik and Ajar. Whereas the Haik is the traditional Maghrebi (mainly Algerian and Tunisian) white garment that covers the body, the Ajar is similar to the Niqab, it is the traditional Algerian face veil. The powerful images of the recent protests in Algeria take us back to the Algerian Revolution of 1954, and the instrumentalization of veiling and concealment.

Unveiling Algeria

In ‘Algeria Unveiled’, Fanon designates the veil as an important instrument of resisting colonial hegemony. Equating the female body with the land, Fanon asserts that unveiling an Algerian woman is synonymous with prostituting Algeria: ‘Every veil that fell, every body that became liberated from the traditional embrace of the Haik, every face that offered itself to the bold and impatient glance of the occupier, was a negative expression of the fact that Algeria was beginning to deny herself and was accepting the rape of the colonizer’ (1959, p. 42). Was unveiling a form of torture against Algerian women? Yes! The French occupation systematically targeted the veil as a remnant of pre-colonial culture and worked on its eradication.

Many Algerian women, mainly from rural areas, were forced to unveil themselves and pose for the colonizer’s cameras. In a poignant abuse of power, the camera was an instrument of humiliation and subjugation of women: who were ashamed to even admit what had happened to them. In many of the photographs, the women’s gaze at the camera reflects their horror, helplessness and a silent reproach, as they hold on tightly to the veils draped on their shoulders and chests. The camera was therefore an apparatus of power; the French soldier’s gaze and the camera’s lens both scrutinize the helpless denuded female body.

In his essay, Fanon underscored his belief that the colonial quest to unveil the women of Algeria represented an attempt to destroy Algerian society. As women are its pillars, detaching them from their cultural and religious heritage would ultimately undermine it and make it easier to conquer. In Gillo Pontecorvo’s La Bataille D’Alger (1966), however, we see combatants using both veiling and unveiling to manipulate enemy surveillance. The veil – which conceals by its very definition – creates a barrier between the soldiers’ gaze and the female body, rendering it un-inspectable.

The unveiling of female militants marked the climax of the film. Infuriated by the bombing of the Casbah building by the French Army, female militants perform an entire ritual of transformation: where they cut off their long beards, dye their hair, wear makeup and dress in European minidresses, taking off their veils to pass checkpoints without raising suspicions. At the checkpoints, soldiers oppress innocent Algerians and humiliate them by either beating them or arresting them for reasons as futile as not having an identity card on them.

On the other hand, they allow ladies who are not veiled to pass, sometimes even exchanging a few kind words or flirting with them. One female militant is shown telling a soldier that she is going to the beach and expresses her interest in him accompanying her. Unlike Fanon’s suggestion, Algerian women did not let go of any principles, be they religious or cultural, but used garments as a means of camouflage. Unveiling was therefore used willingly and strategically to subvert colonial gaze and resist occupation. In fact, many female militants, such as Bouhired and Drif, never chose to be veiled even after independence. They are still hailed as heroines and icons of the Algerian Revolution. The final scene of unveiling in La Bataille D’Alger is after independence: as we see women and men celebrating in the streets, and women festively taking off their veils, celebrating the departure of the foreigner. I would therefore argue that choosing to veil in traditional garments during the 2019 protests carries a silent warning: no foreign intervention is welcome!

Re-veiling the Algerian revolution

Evidently, the veil’s symbolism has undergone several shifts, from an Abrahamic practice of modesty to a politicized form of asserting identity. In the west, many Muslim women hold on to their veils to flaunt their Islamic identity and challenge media discourses loaded with narratives of oppression or violence. The Hijab has often been used by Muslim women throughout the western world to assert pride and belonging: as Marnia Lazreg (2009, p. 54) notes, it has been ‘an increasingly attractive method for women from Muslim communities in Europe and North America to display pride in their culture’. Moreover, in some Muslim societies, the veil can even be instrumentalized as a boundary that separates the self from the other, the private from the public and the permissible from the forbidden. In fact, in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example, where the veil is compulsory by law, women have been struggling to assert their individual choices. The extreme obsession with veiling in Saudi Arabia is best exemplified in a tragedy during which fifteen girls were reported dead after a fire eruption in a school in Mecca in 2002. A father of one of the girls reported that the school watchmen refused to let the girls out because they were not covered properly. The Commission of the Provision of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in Saudi Arabia can safely be described as religious police which, among many things, is tasked with the control of women’s proper veiling.

Utilising the veil to assert algerianness represented a soft discourse of power, aimed at putting off unwanted, unwelcome foreign intervention. Oscillating between being victims of masculine authority or harbingers of terror, veiled women in the west often struggle with stereotypes. This politicized perception of the Islamic veil is relatively new and has developed since 9/11. Before then, it was given a more exotic symbolism; it was regarded as a coy invitation to peel away the barrier and reveal what it conceals, as in Orientalist paintings such as those of Eugène Delacroix.

As many women decided to go out into Haik and Ajar during the Algerian protests, one is forced to wonder: are Algerian women still resisting surveillance through veiling? Whereas many decided to cover their faces with Ajar or the Algerian flag to evade patriarchal surveillance, many others have used it as a subversive way to symbolize authentic Algerianness. The Algerian activist and painter, Souad Douibi, for example, shrouded herself in a long veil covered with her own Arabic transcriptions of ‘freedom’: a look that evokes Shirin Neshat’s series of portraits ‘Women of Allah’. Here, the veil renders the word ‘freedom’ more prominent than either Souad or any individual features; we see a woman asking for freedom or, more powerful still, a woman proclaiming her freedom.

If we compare the symbolism of the veil during the colonial era and the contemporary one, we instantly notice its shift from a seemingly exotic garment from the 'Orient' to western representations of it as a menacing symbol of violence and terrorism. Over-using the veil’s symbolism during the protests in Algeria was simply another way of emphasizing Algerian identity and sending a message to the west to keep out of it. In fact, many protestors held banners brandishing a humorous threat: ‘France and USA, this is a family matter, stay out of it’. Moreover, inscribing the word ‘freedom’ on a garment often branded as ‘oppressive’ in the west was an invitation to deconstruct the veil and read it against cultural stereotypes. Through this oxymoronic amalgam of tensions between freedom and oppression, obedience and disobedience, conformity and rebellion, the veil becomes a way of re-writing identity.

Seeing the veil being used to proclaim algerianness prompted me to reminisce on Mona Eltahawy’s essay ‘Why do they Hate Us: The real war on women in the Middle East’. In this essay, she professed: ‘The Arab uprisings may have been sparked by an Arab man […] but they will be finished by Arab women’. The fight against the current government – referred to by many in Algeria as ‘the mob of thieves’ – continues, despite the resignation of former President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. While still participating in the protests, women face hardships which are anything but new. On April 3, the idiocy of a man calling for acid attacks against Algerian feminists ‘demanding freedom’ led to his being reported to anti-terrorism authorities in the UK.

This was followed by a poignant moment where female protestors were arrested in Algiers: where they were humiliated and forced to strip out of their underwear by police officers. The officers reportedly ordered ‘all to be removed’: a slogan widely used by Algerian protestors in the aim of toppling the entire regime. This only reminds us of the danger of patriarchal violence lying dormant in Algeria. Yet, we cannot help but marvel at the new lineage of resistance methods used by Algerian women. With women leading revolutions such Alaa Salah in Sudan and Djamila Bouhired in Algeria, it is natural to wonder again, will Arab uprisings be finished by women?


Lazreg, Marnia. Questioning the Veil (p. 133). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Fanon, F. (1965) A Dying Colonialism . New York: Grove Press.

Lazreg, M. (2009) Questioning the Veil. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

La Bataille d’Alger. (1966). [online]. Pontecorvo, G. Algeria.

Neshat, S. (1994) Women of Allah. [Ink on Photograph]. MET Museum, New York.