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A Foundational shift for tiny Orting, Wash.

They were so preoccupied with the volcano shadowing their town, with forecasts and evacuation drills, that few people here noticed the other disaster taking shape around them. Life for Orting’s 8,000 residents depended on predicting what would one day come roaring down the slopes of Mount Rainier, 30 miles away. They had sirens for lava, sensors for earthquakes and alarms for the volcanic mudflow that geologists believed would one day bury the town. Tension was always building inside the volcano, considered the country’s most dangerous, a pressure that intensified with each foundational shift in the earth. The only question was when it would finally blow.

So at first nobody paid much attention in the fall of 2013 when what came winding around the mountain and into the valley was another U-Haul carrying a new family into town. The truck was loaded down with a handmade crib, a living room set and a sign designed to hang on a front door. “Welcome to Our Love Story,” it read. Here came three more people into one of the state’s fastest-growing communities. Here, in the driver’s seat, came Orting’s newest employee, a police officer in a place where crime had begun to rise. Gerry Pickens stopped downtown to pick up his badge, and only then did it become obvious in Orting that this hire was unlike any the town had made before.

The place once known as “The White City,” in part for its lack of diversity, had hired a black police officer, its first since the town’s founding in 1889.

“Congratulations! Welcome to our team,” read a letter that Pickens received with his badge.

Eighteen months later, if Orting can still agree on anything about Pickens’s arrival, it is that his first day was also his best day — the one when questions of race and policing still felt like problems for bigger towns. Pickens, 28, had not yet been suspended for an allegation of stealing that was never substantiated. He had not yet been terminated shortly before the end of his standard probationary period. His car had not yet been spray-painted with a racial epithet and a threat. The NAACP hadn’t yet arrived for a news conference. Residents had not yet fractured into hostile groups as the pressure built, erupting onto hateful Internet message boards and petitions demanding the police chief’s resignation. Pickens had not yet made plans to file a lawsuit unless the town paid him $5 million in damages, nearly twice the annual budget, enough to bury the town.

The one clear thing that first day was that there had been a subtle shift in the foundation, a change in Orting that marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. A local politician posted a message on Facebook: “Not a cow town anymore.” The city administrator called Pickens’s hiring “a proud moment for our modern, growing community.” The police chief said he had made “a tremendous value hire” by filling out his staff of 11 with an experienced officer. Pickens had spent three years policing on the midnight shift in Atlanta, where he had responded to hundreds of the drug crimes, break-ins and violent robberies that were only beginning to encroach on Orting as development spread south from Seattle into the valley.

“So happy to be home,” Pickens wrote to a friend that day. He had gone to high school a few miles outside town, and he had taken a pay cut to bring his wife and daughter back to the Pacific Northwest. He missed its green hillsides, its soft-and-steady rain and its two-lane roads that cut through dairy farms and daffodil fields. He missed the Old West feel of the one-block downtown, where the most prominent structure was a playground and where shops had names such as “Bucky’s,” “Wild Rose” and “Big J’s Outdoors.”

He found a rental house outside town, on a dead-end road with a view of the mountains. The volcano sometimes made his wife uneasy, but Pickens told her not to worry. He had grown accustomed in high school to the evacuation drills and sirens, preparing for a disaster that was always coming, until finally he stopped expecting that it would. He no longer thought about the magma and molten rock churning beneath the trees and glaciers. For him, Mount Rainier was just a landmark, a snow-capped peak visible for hundreds of miles. The view was tranquil and familiar. It meant he was home.

He was already aware of the town’s reputation — a conservative place, an insular place, a white place — and he had heard rumors in high school of police officers intimidating black drivers and of white supremacists meeting in the woods. But they were just stories, everything subterranean and easy to dismiss, because during his teenage years, Pickens had never felt discriminated against or even disliked.

His parents had taught him some guidelines for living in a place that was almost entirely white: Don’t talk about being black. Act grateful. Get used to people staring and always smile back. “Gerry could fit in anywhere,” read an inscription in his high school yearbook, and it was a skill honed from necessity.

His father had been in the military, so Pickens spent his childhood moving every few years. He learned to make jokes in Spanish to Mexican immigrants in San Antonio, dropped his name from Gerry to “G” in a black neighborhood of Detroit and went cow tipping with friends from a predominantly white high school when he moved near Orting in ninth grade. His parents left for Atlanta but he stayed in the Pacific Northwest to work after college, selling Toyotas on straight commission. “Know Your Customer,” was the dealership’s motto, so Pickens jokingly sang Garth Brooks lyrics to farmers looking for pickups and fist-bumped teenagers shopping for something fast. He cleared $90,000 that first year, a rookie record, with little expertise in sales strategy or transmissions. What he knew was how to make people laugh.

So it surprised him when he arrived back in Orting in the fall of 2013 that one of the first jokes he heard featured him as the punch line. A resident had seen Pickens on patrol and called 911. “There’s a police car being driven by a black juvenile,” the resident had reported, and for the next several weeks some of Pickens’s co-workers had referred to him as the “black juvenile.” What he wanted to tell them was that he wasn’t a rookie, and that he had responded to more 911 calls than any of them while working in Atlanta — but maybe it wasn’t meant to be racist so much as it was just a bad joke. He decided to laugh. He decided, then and again, not to blame his experiences on race.

Maybe it was because he had the least seniority that he had been given an older car, with a battery that occasionally went dead when he turned on his police lights. Maybe the police chief was only trying to be thoughtful when he mentioned, in Pickens’s memory at least three times, that Pickens should be vigilant about his self defense because Orting was an old-fashioned place that believed in the Second Amendment, where white supremacist groups remained active and well armed. And maybe Pickens had only himself to blame when his imagination began obsessing about those groups between 2 and 6 a.m., when he was the only officer on duty. He sometimes wondered: If one of those groups ambushed him, would anyone provide backup? How long before help would arrive?

Only when the police chief suspended Pickens for a week in April 2014 did he become convinced that racism was the cause, and that it was no longer enough to act grateful and smile back. Another Orting officer had been able to stay at work while being investigated for using excessive force on a teenager; Pickens was sent home based on an accusation of lifting weights at a local gym without paying for the visit. Pickens decided not to complain directly to the chief or his supervising lieutenant. “I didn’t want to have the race talk with anyone I saw every day,” he said. Instead he called the mayor, Joachim “Joe” Pestinger, and they met at a park.

“I keep saying to myself that this doesn’t have anything to do with my race, but something’s going on,” Pickens said he told the mayor that day.

“We don’t see race here,” Pestinger remembered saying. “That’s not an issue for us.”

“Then why does it seem like I’m being set up to fail?” Pickens said.

“Nobody wants you to succeed more than we do.”

They talked past each other for 10 minutes until the mayor shook Pickens’s hand and walked off, leaving him more confused than before. “I’m just trying to understand . . .” Pickens wrote on his Facebook page, because it seemed to him that so much about race in Orting was cryptic and awkward, a tension so papered over with niceties that in some ways he began to appreciate the handful of residents who talked in the harshest terms about black and white. At least they weren’t afraid to be honest. At least he knew exactly what they thought.

One of them was Tracy Conklin, 43, who remembered telling Pickens once that “black and white don’t mix.” She sometimes called him “mud blood,” but she liked how Pickens issued warnings instead of tickets, and how he played basketball in his uniform with teenagers in the park. “Probably the best officer we have,” she wrote of him once, in a note about his performance, so she started meeting with Pickens to give him information about local fugitives, drug activity and the increasing tension in Orting.

“This used to be a country town with no outsiders,” she remembered telling Pickens. “So when a strange black man comes riding into town in a police car, well, I’m sorry, but that’s very ‘new Orting,’ and people just don’t know how to react to that.”

How much change could one place take? How many shifts before the foundation began to crack? The town of Orting had been built on a base of volcanic material 15 feet deep, evidence of the several dozen times Mount Rainier had erupted. An explosion came every few hundred years and would one day come again: heat and gas upsetting the volcano’s fragile balance, melting Rainier’s 25 glaciers, uprooting trees, unhinging boulders and hillsides, all of it collapsing down the mountain at 50 miles an hour in an avalanche of earth known as a lahar. In a worst-case scenario, geologists predicted Orting would have as little as 42 minutes to evacuate. Then the town would be flooded with 20 feet of mud.

In the psychology of a town at the base of the volcano, change wasn’t merely awkward or even scary. It was the catalyst for a disaster to be held off at all costs.

So for decades, Orting adhered to the tenets of stability and consistency: population always about 2,000; demographics steady at 95 percent white; membership consistent at the Lions Club, the Masons and the Kiwanis; a princess crowned at the Daffodil Festival each spring. Volunteers worked to hold the town in place, raising the levees to prepare for a flood and bolting houses to the ground in case of an earthquake. They practiced evacuations twice each year, filing students out of schools in orderly lines. The same police chief remained in charge for 30 years, parking his car on the main road into town not because he wanted to write tickets but because he liked to honk his horn and wave at every resident who drove past. “The Orting Way,” people called it.

But then the Fords sold their family dairy farm, and the Williamses offered up 100 acres of white-and-yellow daffodil fields to developers in the 1990s. Soon signs on the main road into town announced cheap houses, and buyers arrived each weekend from Seattle. Look at all that empty space! And look at that mountain! The plots sold before construction crews could level the dirt. The first chain grocery store opened in what had been an open field. Chinese investors bought land. Developers bulldozed Christmas tree farms and sprayed out the perennials. Up went Calistoga Place, with its winding streets and cookie-cutter cul-de-sacs. Up went Majestic Estates with its gated entrance. Up went Carbon River Landing, Whitehawk, Village Crest and Village Green as Orting’s population doubled, then tripled, then quadrupled.

“A thriving bedroom community,” advertised one marketing campaign, but longtime residents had another name for it: a town of strangers. Commuters left for Seattle before dawn and returned late at night. The Kiwanis died out. The Chamber of Commerce faltered. The Masons moved from town.

What arrived in their place were mostly young families — a touch more liberal, a few more Hispanics, Samoans, Filipinos and African Americans. The white population dropped from 95 percent to 88 percent. The grind of construction drowned out the coyotes and the rush of two glacial creeks. The two-lane road became gridlocked with commuters, and traffic studies revealed an even bigger problem: The town was growing too big to evacuate. Nobody would be getting out in 42 minutes, not with congestion like this.

Politicians created a plan to build a “Bridge for Kids,” an architectural marvel that would connect the schools to a safety zone in the hills above town. The proposed bridge, more than a mile long, would evacuate all 2,500 students in less than 40 minutes — if only a town with a $3 million budget could somehow raise the $50 million to build it. The mayor trimmed annual expenditures and began saving a few hundred thousand dollars toward the project. A new police chief, hired after the previous one retired, parked on the road into town and started pulling people over, issuing tickets to generate revenue. Sometimes, he found drugs.

Suddenly meth was being produced inside one of the abandoned farms and heroin was coming down from Seattle. Car thefts increased. Home invasions doubled. Then, early last year, a lifetime Orting resident awoke in the middle of the night to a noise in his house, yet another robbery, and when he went downstairs to investigate, he was killed with his own gun — just the second homicide in 50 years, and this one still unsolved.

“Crisis in Orting!” declared the banner of one newsletter after the killing, and on Internet message boards residents began casting blame for the disorder they believed had overtaken their town. It was the teenagers, some wrote. The commuters. The minorities. The gangs. Ten days after the shooting, the city council held a videotaped meeting in the town’s largest room, the school gymnasium, because several hundred people wanted to attend. Some came hoping for a ban on new development. Others wanted a curfew or a citizens’ patrol. They lined up behind a microphone and took turns eulogizing their town.

“Who else misses the old Orting?” one asked.

“Do you even recognize your neighbors anymore?” said another.

“Druggies, dealers and criminals have taken over our streets.”

“Exterminate the rats!”

“I’ve lived in Orting since 1977, and I never had to lock our doors, ever. Our town is different, and I’ve had to learn that. Lock it up. Lock it up. An alarm system is good.”

Bill Drake, the new police chief, stepped to the microphone and stared hard at the crowd. His badge was shined, and his gun was holstered at his hip. He was the vanguard of town, responsible for holding together so many fractured parts, and now he spoke in his Tennessee drawl and warned that he was “coming for” whoever committed the killing. The police department had interviewed dozens of people, administered polygraph tests and identified “persons of interest,” he said. Everyone on his staff was working overtime, including the new officer he’d hired from Atlanta.

“The community of Orting will not go quietly into the night,” Drake said, pounding his fist on the lectern, and the crowd whistled and cheered.

“My city,” is how Drake sometimes referred to Orting, and few people could disagree. In seven years as police chief, he had outlasted a mayor, three chairmen of the public safety committee and 13 members of the city council. His police department controlled 60 percent of the town’s budget. He had a habit of referring to many things in Orting as his — “There’s my school superintendent,” or “my new mayor,” or “my volcano,” or “my toughest drug house,” he liked to say — and if in fact he did have dominion over the town, then most of its residents considered themselves lucky, especially having seen his résumé.

Twenty-two years in the Air Force. Two master’s degrees. He’d scuba dived the Red Sea while living in Saudi Arabia and ridden motorcycles along the Rhine River during a tour in Europe. He’d operated airborne lasers in Virginia, managed ground radar in South Carolina and spent hundreds of hours in the sky above places such as Iceland, Alaska and South Korea, doing international surveillance. Then he had retired to Washington state and become a police officer, working in a big department for eight years before coming to Orting, where he was sworn to protect a nowhere little town tucked against a mountain.

“The smartest, best, most exceptional person we have here,” the city administrator said.

“A worldly man,” one councilwoman agreed.

“A person who is in every way overqualified, outstanding,” the mayor said. “Respect for me is equal to love. I love this man. He brought a sophistication to this city that we hadn’t seen before.”

When Drake became police chief in 2007, the department was operating out of two classrooms in an abandoned school building, with no air conditioning or detention cell. Suspects were held in the back of police cars while officers went into the station to complete their case reports on a typewriter. Drake moved the department into a new building, fought for a budget increase and used some of his own money to modernize the department. He added tinted windows and computer systems to the police cars, rented night-vision equipment and bought a training simulator. He began tracking every 911 call, evaluating officers based on their number of stops and citations. “Going from the 19th century to the 20th, to the 21st,” was how Drake characterized those first years.

But each week at the all-staff meeting, Drake delivered his orders to 11 white men, even as the city diversified. “This is a problem,” he remembered telling the city administrator, and together they advertised Orting’s police openings at job fairs in Tacoma and Seattle, hoping to attract minorities and women. They contracted with a hiring firm that specialized in finding diverse candidates, but by the time Orting conducted its interviews the best minority officers had gone to bigger departments that paid substantially more.

“Everybody is looking for these same officers right now, and we’re always going to be left taking whatever’s left,” Drake said, so it seemed to him like remarkable luck when the city received an application from Pickens, an experienced minority officer who had applied specifically to Orting because he wanted to move home. Pickens nailed the interview. He passed the polygraph, the agility test and the psych evaluation. Drake sent his lieutenant to Atlanta to conduct a background investigation, and when everything checked out the city made its offer. Pickens accepted the same day.

“A crowning achievement for us,” the mayor said.

Then Pickens started — and so, in Drake’s accounting, did a succession of problems. According to a document Drake later provided to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Pickens disappeared from radio contact during his shift, approached a high-risk traffic stop with his hands in his pockets, ignored advice from his training officer and submitted sloppy accident reports that were left two-thirds empty. While Drake’s other officers averaged about eight citations a month, Drake reported that Pickens wrote one or two. Maybe he really was establishing trust with teenagers when he played basketball in his uniform, but in the monthly statistics, that added up to a lot of loafing around. “There are motivational issues,” an officer in charge of training Pickens told Drake, so the chief began devoting time to counseling Pickens himself.

Drake had no children, no spouse and no relatives nearby. It had been months since he had ridden his motorcycle or taken off in his RV. His life was mostly his job, both a purpose and an identity. He came to work early to eat at the senior center — “The seniors here know everything,” he said — and he patrolled with pet treats in the cup holder of his cruiser to pacify dogs. He worked 60 or 70 hours each week, sometimes sleeping in his office, unwinding each night with the classical music he kept on his computer. “It can be a lonely life,” he said, and so for most of his career in policing and in the military, he had considered his subordinates his family — whether they were men or women, gay or straight, black or white. “I take care of my own,” he said. He counseled Pickens about his performance in March, wrote him a letter in April and spoke to him again in August. The two men never discussed race. Pickens never said what it was like to be the first black officer in Orting. Drake never asked.

“Orting is a small town, and nothing goes unnoticed here,” was as far as Drake would go.

“Obviously, my situation is a little unique,” was all Pickens would say.

About a week before Pickens’s one-year probationary period ended, Drake met with the city administrator and the mayor to discuss their options. Firing Pickens would cost the city about $50,000, because it would need to hire and train his replacement. Drake would be down to 10 policemen instead of 11 for several months. The town recently had hired a second black police officer, but the mayor cautioned that firing Pickens might not look good. “It was hard as nails,” the city administrator said of their decision, but in the end it was left to the chief’s discretion. This was his department. This was his choice.

“I regret to inform you,” he wrote Pickens on Sept. 9, and later, in a response to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he elaborated on his thinking. He stated that Pickens had been given “every opportunity” before being dismissed for “unsatisfactory performance.” Then Drake went on to list his reasons.

“Failed to understand,” he wrote.

“Failed to handle . . .”

“Failed to comprehend . . .”

“Failed to meet . . .”

“Failed to complete . . .”

Pickens’s mother offered to help him find a “bulldog lawyer,” but he declined. His wife said he should file a lawsuit, but instead Pickens began applying for other jobs. “God closes one door and opens another,” he wrote to a hiring coordinator at another police department in Washington state, and he sailed through their exams and interviews until it came time for a background check with his previous employer.

“Now there are things I need to document and discuss with my captain,” the hiring coordinator wrote to Pickens after visiting Orting. “Everything is being evaluated. What’s the status of your lawsuit?”

“I’m not going to move forward with a lawsuit,” Pickens wrote back. “I don’t need to be labeled or black balled from my passion which is policing.”

“I have your story, and I have theirs,” the recruiter said, and Pickens never heard from him again.

Pickens expanded his search and applied for police jobs in Oregon and California. He made appointments with a psychologist and lost 20 pounds, which he attributed to stress. He signed up for unemployment insurance and stayed home with his 2-year-old daughter, taking her to the playground in downtown Orting where he could watch the police cars cruise by as the pressure built in his chest. “They took my manhood, my income, my security,” he said. “They thought I was just some dumb black guy who would take unemployment and kick rocks.” He began writing down all the ways he thought he’d been discriminated against: co-workers who called him a “token black guy,” discrepancies in his vacation time and racial epithets shouted at him by a resident when he responded to a disorderly conduct complaint. He compiled testimonials from supporters until one morning a neighbor came banging on his door. She screamed something about his truck, and he followed her outside. His daughter saw it first. She said somebody had drawn on it with a crayon, but she was too young to read the words. “Nigger,” it read on one side. And then, on the other: “Sue cheif and pay.”

Pickens called the county police and then a lawyer. The lawyer called the Tacoma chapter of the NAACP, and together they scheduled a news conference. “Racism is still alive,” Pickens said, and then he announced that he would file suit for wrongful termination unless the city paid him $5 million in damages.

“Maybe a little low, considering everything I’ve gone through,” Pickens said later.

“An absurd number,” the mayor said. “That’s $700 from every child, student and person in this town.”

The city council consulted with a public relations expert and retained a lawyer. “If this gains momentum, it could crack this town in two,” said one councilwoman, and already that was happening online, hate and bias spilling onto Facebook, where the community forums often revolved around Pickens’s case.

“It isn’t about race but is more about ability,” one person wrote.

“Whoever spray-painted his SUV felt it was about race,” wrote another.

“BIG surprise! Another black guy filing a lawsuit.”

“Orting is a backwater, racist town.”

“Bet he spray-painted his own car to get a pay day.”

“Chief probably told his cronies to go do it.”

“Maybe they should hire Pickens in Ferguson.”

“He’s trying to destroy Orting.”

“Orting deserves whatever it gets.”

By late March, the community had fractured into a series of combative Facebook groups. One was formed to disparage the police department, and another was launched to defend it. One organized a citizens’ patrol, and another protested vigilantism. There was a page to celebrate the traditions of old Orting and a page devoted to Orting’s new families and commuters. There was the “Orting Citizen’s Blotter,” the “Non-Judgmental Citizens Blotter” and the “Open Discussion About the Ugly Truth.” Residents started movements to oust the mayor, recall the council, fire the police chief or even disband the town by turning governance over to the county.

On some days, it seemed all of Orting was arguing about race, and that was when the sirens went off.

Pickens drives past one of the town’s now-rare farms. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Drake hired Pickens in an attempt to diversify the police department. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

There were five of them in all, placed in every section of town, each one similar in pitch to an ambulance but so much louder. The town tested its lahar alarms several times each year, but no matter how well the drills were publicized, the first blaring notes always came as a surprise. Dogs howled. Horses bucked against their stables. Construction crews called for breaks because they couldn’t hear, and restaurants stopped taking orders for lunch.

The entire valley was consumed by noise, one deafening truth, and for two minutes the only choice was to listen.

The mayor sat in his office at city hall as the siren began and thought about his budget for emergencies. “We’re stretched to the bone right now just on basic costs,” he said, and for a town located in the path of disaster, basics never seemed like enough. He wanted to buy emergency radios and survival kits for every citizen. He wanted to hire a full-time detective and two additional police officers. He wanted, most of all, to raise $50 million and build the evacuation bridge in time for a lahar that could come any day.

“We don’t have $5 million to spare,” the mayor said, thinking about Pickens and his demand. Even if the town did have some kind of insurance to help cover it, he had made up his mind. “I don’t want to settle for one dollar, if it’s my choice,” he said. “This is a false accusation, and I don’t want to give it any merit.”

Pickens heard the alarm continuing to ring and turned up the TV volume in his house for his daughter, so the sound wouldn’t scare her. As a police officer in Orting, he had often been sent on patrol during siren drills to reassure residents, and some of those people had written him thank-you notes and testimonials about his overall performance. “Respectful even when he was arresting me,” one woman had written. “Always calm,” wrote another. “A great officer.” “Made me safer at night.” “Brought back a sense of community.”

“There are so many good people in this town,” he said, and yet now he was on one side of a lawsuit, and they were on the other.

At the police station, Drake counted the seconds of the drill as they passed: 57, 58, 59. Halfway through. Part of his job as police chief was to serve as Orting’s emergency manager, which made him responsible for evacuations in case of a lahar. Years earlier, local officials had traveled to Virginia for a simulation drill run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The scenario that day had given Orting residents nearly a two-hour warning before a lahar came, a generous timeline, and still the lahar had resulted in $10 billion in damages and 5,000 deaths. The mountain had won, FEMA officials said.

Drake had spent dozens of hours preparing to win if a lahar arrived on his watch, and no matter the scenario, the basic facts of his task were always the same: Eight thousand people to evacuate. Forty-two minutes to remove them. “Keep moving. Don’t stop. Keep moving,” the town’s emergency guide read. Residents would have to grab their ready-made survival kits. They would need to move by foot and not by car. They had to follow the blue signs down Calistoga Street to the rock quarry until they had made it at least 80 feet above the valley floor. No rescuers would be coming until the lahar ended. Orting would determine its own fate.

“The human instinct is to panic,” Drake said. “We are not by nature always calm, rational people. That’s what we’re up against.”

Everything he knew about evacuations suggested that there was one way to minimize the damage: When the alarm sounded for something other than a drill, an entire community had to move past denial and beyond fear. Old Orting and new Orting, police officers and citizens, minorities and whites — their reality was all the same. They needed to start moving in the same direction, up the hill, and fast.

Bosnians

Bosnians rally against mass in Sarajevo for Nazi-allied soldiers

Thousands of Bosnians, many wearing masks, demonstrated on Saturday against a mass in Sarajevo for Croatia’s Nazi-allied soldiers and civilians killed by partisan forces at the end of World War II. The mass was a replacement for a controversial annual gathering usually held in Bleiburg, Austria, which was cancelled due to restrictions imposed by the…

Bosnians rally against mass in Sarajevo for Nazi-allied soldiers

Thousands of Bosnians, many wearing masks, demonstrated on Saturday against a mass in Sarajevo for Croatia’s Nazi-allied soldiers and civilians killed by partisan forces at the end of World War II.
The mass was a replacement for a controversial annual gathering usually held in Bleiburg, Austria, which was cancelled due to restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.
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Bleiburg: Far-right Croats to mourn WWII dead in Austria

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Another small replacement event took place Saturday at a cemetery in Zagreb, Croatia.
The decision to hold the mass in Sarajevo provoked a strong backlash in a country where the memory of ethnic war in the 1990s is still fresh.
It was condemned by Bosnia’s Serbian Orthodox Church, the Jewish and Muslim communities and several anti-fascist organisations.
Protesters, many wearing masks, walked through the city singing anti-fascists songs and holding up photos of resistance members who were tortured and killed by Nazi-allied Croatian forces during their rule over Sarajevo during World War II.
“My two grandfathers, their brothers and my grandmother were all killed by these fascists who have been honoured today,” said retired electro-technician Cedomir Jaksic, 63.
“It is not normal that a city such as Sarajevo, which was terrorised so much in both World War II and the last war (in the 1990s), allows something like this to happen,” he added.
Zvonimir Nikolic, a 57-year-old economist, called the mass a “disaster for Sarajevo.”
“Sarajevo is among a few cities in the world where this mass should never be held because the regime it commemorates committed monstrous crimes in Sarajevo,” said Nikolic, who is Catholic.
For Croatian nationalists, the annual event symbolises their suffering under communism in the former Yugoslavia.
However, in recent years, Croatia has increasingly been criticised for historical revisionism. The annual mass in Bleiburg, as well as the one in Sarajevo on Saturday, was held with the support of Croatian parliamentarians.
Protected mass 
Police sealed off the area around Sarajevo’s Catholic Cathedral, where Bosnian Archbishop Cardinal Vinko Puljic said mass to a congregation of few dozen Croat dignitaries and priests.
In his sermon, Puljic asked for more information on how the people had died and where they were buried, as well as for respect and forgiveness for all victims of World War II. Smaller memorials were also held in Zagreb and Bleiburg.

As we have just marked the Day of Victory over Fascism, we all must focus on the true values of democracy, reconciliation, and interreligious dialogue.
— US Embassy Sarajevo (@USEmbassySJJ) May 11, 2020

The members of the Bosnian tripartite presidency condemned the mass, as did the US and Israeli embassies in Bosnia.
The speaker of the Croatian parliament, Gordan Jandrokovic, said during a brief commemoration in Zagreb that they aimed to commemorate innocent victims and did not plan to rehabilitate the Ustasa.
Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, said the mass “risks becoming a glorification of those who supported the Nazi-allied fascist Ustasa regime, complicit in the death of hundreds of thousands of human beings”. 
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Democratic

US: Democratic legislators to probe Trump’s firing of watchdog

Democrats in Congress on Saturday launched an investigation into President Donald Trump’s firing of the State Department’s internal watchdog, accusing the president of further escalating his fight against any oversight of his administration. Trump, in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi late on Friday, said he no longer had confidence in Inspector General Steve…

US: Democratic legislators to probe Trump’s firing of watchdog

Democrats in Congress on Saturday launched an investigation into President Donald Trump’s firing of the State Department’s internal watchdog, accusing the president of further escalating his fight against any oversight of his administration.
Trump, in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi late on Friday, said he no longer had confidence in Inspector General Steve Linick’s ability to serve. Linick is the latest in a string of government watchdogs to be removed in recent weeks under the Republican president.
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The Democratic-led House Foreign Relations Committee, along with colleagues in the Senate, in a statement on Saturday questioned the timing and motivation of what they called an “unprecedented removal”.
“We unalterably oppose the politically-motivated firing of inspectors general and the President’s gutting of these critical positions,” wrote House panel chairman Eliot Engel and Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Republican-led Senate Foreign Relations panel.
Engel and Menendez called on the Trump administration to turnover any related documents by May 22.
The two Democrats said it was their understanding that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo personally recommended Linick’s firing because the inspector general “had opened an investigation into wrongdoing by Secretary Pompeo himself.”
Later on Saturday, the White House said Trump fired Linick following a recommendation by Pompeo.
“Secretary Pompeo recommended the move, and President Trump agreed,” a White House official said.
Linick, appointed to the role in 2013 under the Obama administration, is the fourth inspector general fired by Trump since early April following his February acquittal by the Republican-led Senate in his impeachment trial.
Pelosi described the ousting as an acceleration of a “dangerous pattern of retaliation.” The US Department of State later said Stephen Akard, the director of the Office of Foreign Missions, would replace Linick.
In April, Trump removed a top coronavirus watchdog, Glenn Fine, who was to oversee the government’s COVID-19 financial relief response. He also notified Congress that he was firing the inspector general of the US intelligence community, Michael Atkinson, who was involved in the triggering the impeachment investigation.
Earlier in May, Trump removed Christi Grimm, who led the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General (OIG) after accusing her of having produced a “fake dossier” on American hospitals suffering shortages on the front lines of the novel coronavirus outbreak.
“Trump is methodically eliminating anyone who would bring wrongdoing to light,” Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat on the Foreign Relations panel, tweeted.
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Rwanda genocide suspect Felicien Kabuga arrested in France

Rwandan genocide suspect Felicien Kabuga was arrested on Saturday near Paris after 25 years on the run, accused of playing a leading role in one of the worst massacres of the 20th century.  The 84-year-old, who is Rwanda’s most-wanted man and had a $5m bounty on his head, was living under a false identity in…

Rwanda genocide suspect Felicien Kabuga arrested in France

Rwandan genocide suspect Felicien Kabuga was arrested on Saturday near Paris after 25 years on the run, accused of playing a leading role in one of the worst massacres of the 20th century. 
The 84-year-old, who is Rwanda’s most-wanted man and had a $5m bounty on his head, was living under a false identity in a flat in Asnieres-Sur-Seine, according to the French justice ministry.
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French gendarmes arrested him at 05:30 GMT on Saturday. Kabuga had been hiding with the complicity of his children. A police statement described him as “one of the world’s most wanted fugitives”.
A Hutu businessman, Kabuga is accused of funding militias that massacred about 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus over 100 days in 1994.
“Since 1994, Felicien Kabuga, known to have been the financier of Rwanda genocide, had with impunity stayed in Germany, Belgium, Congo-Kinshasa, Kenya, or Switzerland,” a justice ministry statement said.
The arrest paves the way for bringing the fugitive in front of the Paris appeal court and later to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Lewis Mudge from New York-based Human Rights Watch said “it is a huge day for Rwanda”.
“Felicien Kabuga is one of the big fish. He is one of the last remaining individuals still out there who is alleged to have had a planning purpose with regards to the Rwanda genocide,” Mudge told Al Jazeera.   
Machete imports
Kabuga was indicted on genocide charges by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

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Rwandan prosecutors have said financial documents found in the capital, Kigali, after the genocide indicated that Kabuga used his companies to import vast quantities of machetes that were used to slaughter people.
The wealthy businessman also was accused of establishing the station Radio Television Mille Collines that broadcast vicious propaganda against the ethnic Tutsi, as well as training and equipping the Interahamwe militia that led the killing spree.
Kabuga was close to former President Juvenal Habyarimana, whose death when his plane was shot down over Kigali sparked the 100-day genocide. Kabuga’s daughter married Habyarimana’s son.
‘Could not have happened’
Kabuga is expected to be transferred to the custody of the UN mechanism, where he will stand trial.
Phil Clark, a professor at SOAS University of London, said the arrest was significant as Kabuga played a crucial role in the mass killings.
“The genocide could not have happened without Kabuga, he basically bankrolled the entire genocide,” Clark told Al Jazeera.
“He basically produced, created and funded the militias that carried out many of the largest massacres during the genocide. He also bankrolled the main ‘hate’ radio station that incited many of the key massacres, and he also enabled the import of about 500,000 machetes, without which the killing spree would have been impossible. Without Kabuga, the genocide couldn’t have happened.”

Olivier Olsen, head of the association of homeowners in the building where he lived, described Kabuga as “someone very discreet … who murmured when you said hello”.
Two other Rwandan genocide suspects, Augustin Bizimana and Protais Mpiranya, are still being pursued by international justice.
Serge Brammertz, chief prosecutor of the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT), said Kabuga’s arrest is a reminder that those responsible for genocide can be brought to account, “even 26 years after their crimes”.
He added: “Today’s arrest underlines the strength of our determination.”
Questions asked
France has long been known as a hiding place for wanted genocide suspects and French investigators currently have dozens of cases underway.
But so far there have been only three convictions from two trials with another trial – of a French-Rwandan former hotel driver accused of transporting Hutu militiamen – set to begin in September.

The genocide has cast a long shadow over Franco-Rwandan relations.
Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, accuses France of having supported the ethnic Hutu forces behind most of the slaughter and of helping some of the perpetrators to escape.
Last year, President Emmanuel Macron announced the creation of a commission of experts that will delve into the French state’s archives in a bid to set the historical record straight.
HRW’s Mudge said there will be questions asked about how Kabuga was able to avoid arrest for so long. 
“There should be an absolute investigation into how he was able to get this other identity and how he was able to evade justice for 26 long years,” he said.
Officials in Rwanda hailed the arrest.
“After many years, the old guards in the French government who could have been protecting Kabuga have left power and you find the young generation have no interest in protecting the ageing fugitive under the new administration,” said Gonza Muganwa, a Rwandan political analyst.
“It’s clear he was being protected and some powerful people knew his hiding place. They sold him.”
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