- Pro-junta supporters fought demonstrators in Myanmar's first city
- A glowing pro-China curriculum was revealed in Hong Kong
- A rape scandal deepened in Australia's capital
- Facebook, Google came out of their news tussle largely unscathed
- The Italian ambassador to the DRC was slain in contested territory
- Rome's prosecutors told Uber Eats its couriers are employees
- The EU and UK failed to resolve the Irish Sea dispute (again)
- More woes for Boeing after a mid-air engine failure
- Tiger Woods was seriously injured in an accidental car collision
- A gang war inside Ecuador's prisons left nearly 100 dead
Last year, the Black Lives Matter protests electrified America. Months later, we have it on good authority that in some liberal cities the police are still routinely called pigs, and are flipped off by passersby. How has the movement overall fared?
Biden and Black Lives Matter
In 2020, somewhere between 15 and 26 million Americans took to their streets in the largest protests the country had ever seen. 2,000 cities and towns witnessed a torrent of humans decrying the police slaying of George Floyd. Over months of demonstrations – some peaceful, others not – the Black Lives Matter movement pulsed with the collective grief of America's Black community. Focused like a laser by then-President Trump's racist invective, the movement grew a hard political edge. Today, another man sits in the Oval Office – one far less willing to stoke racial hatred for political benefit – although the jury is still out on whether he stands for, or in the way of, genuine change.
There are those who see Joe Biden's elevation to the highest office (and his appointment of America's first African-American and Asian-American Vice President) as progress in and of itself. This view, more prevalent among older generations, has a familiar hollow ring. Particularly for those who were paying heed in 2008. But the radical change needed to address structural racism in American life does not happen with a single appointment. As outward signs of protest dwindle, we recall Martin Luther King, Jr.'s prophetic warning that the greatest stumbling block in the path of African Americans was not the Klu Klux Klan, "but the white moderate who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice".
There is another yardstick by which we can measure America's progress towards racial justice. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was introduced to Congress last year but has lost momentum thanks to the strong currents of partisan politics and an unusually disruptive general election. It contains broad guidelines for improving police practices, including a ban on 'no-knock' warrants (which were instrumental in the killing of Breonna Taylor a year ago) and the type of chokehold used on Floyd.
If this Act does not become law in a Congress wholly held by Democrats, you have your answer as to how this administration views the Black Lives Matter movement.
Hand in your gun and your badge
A locus of major change is in and around America's 17,985 police departments (not to mention the constellation of agencies that comprise the state security apparatus). After the slaying of Floyd last May, a clarion call to defund the police echoed around America. Within months several dozen councils – including in metropolises like New York City, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia – voted to cut well over a billion dollars from their police budgets. In Minneapolis, where Floyd was murdered, the local council diverted $8m away from the police towards mental health and violence prevention programs.
The next target for BLM are police unions. These organisations have routinely shielded members accused of wrongdoing. According to Los Angeles county activists , have "a central role in perpetuating white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and a culture of deadly violence". But, demographics are everything and the liberal/conservative (or, more potently, metropolitan/rural) divide has meant progress is piecemeal . And further, the current president has brushed aside countenancing anything as radical as partially defunding the police .
And there are calls for accountability that lie far beyond the farthest boundary of the statute of limitations. Last Sunday was the anniversary of the slaying of the African American civil rights iconoclast and Islamic minister Malcolm X. This week new details about his assassination – long believed to have been aided by the authorities – that lead back to the New York Police Department and Federal Bureau of Intelligence. A deathbed letter states that the NYPD arrested Malcolm X's bodyguards in the days before his killing; which is believed to have cleared a path for his assassins. His family have called for the investigation to be reopened.
Black activists have been assassinated or disappeared for centuries in America. This bloody trend began long before Malcolm X, or Martin Luther King, Jr., and continues today. In the years since the 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police killing of Michael Brown, no fewer than six Black Lives Matter activists have been found dead. Several were labelled suicides, though family members dispute key details and believe them to have been lynchings, while two were found shot in torched cars in what are clearly professional hits. As long as black activists keep turning up shot and hung, there will be no let-up.
A dose of reality
This week the most ambitious and certainly the most righteous project of this pandemic took a leap forward. The United Nations COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access initiative seeks to inoculate 2 billion people in the world's poorest countries free of charge. Covax, as the project is abbreviated, delivered its first free doses to the developing world this week. A flight touched down in Ghana with 600,000 doses (a quarter of the planned 2.4m) of AstraZeneca's vaccine. Developed in tandem with the Serum Institute of India, this will be the vaccine of choice given it can be transported in refrigerators, rather than freezers.
But another announcement this week slightly dulled the shine of the Ghana shipment: these Covax shots are a drop in the ocean compared to what has been gobbled up by wealth countries. The World Health Organisation's increasingly-testy boss said this week, "So far 210 million doses of vaccine have been administered globally but half of those are in just two countries ."
Despite the categorical goodness of an international vaccine rollout and the end of this pandemic, we'd like you to spare a thought for a group who are now being adversely impacted: the coronavirus billionaires.
Across the medical supplies sector – e.g., Malaysia's rubber glove manufacturers – a number of fortunes are beginning to evaporate. Short-sellers have piled in to take positions against the likes of Lim Wee Chai's Top Glove. Further afield in Seoul and Shanghai, biotech shooting stars have burnt out, and stock prices are tumbling dramatically.
What's Farsi for 'swings and roundabouts'?
Is it that some problems never change – or that our perception of them doesn't? This week a flurry of stories carried news of Iran's decision to restrict access to United Nations nuclear inspectors and continue enriching uranium above the limits set by the long-abandoned 2015 nuclear deal.
US President Joe Biden's promise to reenter that pact has not been met warmly by Tehran – despite a 'successful' visit by the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency. America wants Iran to draw down its enrichment, Iran wants sanctions relief, and both want the other to go first. As pressure mounts, pro-Iranian militias in Iraq shelled US military facilities, and America responded in turn with airstrikes .
If the Trump era was characterised by pantomime bravado when making deals (or, more often, abrogating them), Biden's State Department has clearly opted for a change in tone. It has taken concrete steps to signal goodwill to Tehran, such as removing travel restrictions on Iranian representatives to the United Nations, and rescinding some of Trump's pettier diktats. But intentionally stepping on someone's toe and then expecting a thank you simply for stepping off is surely not fine statecraft. America will have to make concessions – not just ameliorate the damage that Trump inflicted – to bring Iran back to the table.
And, contrary to what a handful of billionaire Gulf princelings and bellicose Israeli politicians spout, Iran must be brought back to the table. The alternative is more of the same: devastating sanctions, sporadic military conflicts, seized foreign nationals , and international incidents .
The best of times
The power of fruit
When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. But if you have an abundance of oranges, you should make electricity. At least, that’s what the residents of Seville, Spain are doing. The city is home to 48,000 trees which drop 5.7m kilos of oranges onto its streets. And so, authorities use the methane created by fermented oranges to produce clean energy . In fact, one metric ton of the fruit can power five homes for one day. Plus, it’s incredibly cheap, and extremely green — or should we say orange?
Mending a broken heart
For the first time ever, children have received hearts brought back to life by groundbreaking technology. The ‘Organ Care System’ works by keeping the organ warm and pumping blood until the transplant can begin. By doing so, more hearts are available for transplant and can be transported further. Though the technique itself isn’t new, it has never before been used on children. And so, young people with heart conditions all over the global could be given a new lease on life.
The worst of times
Syrians live hand-to-mouth
Syrians are suffering the cumulative effects of war, coronavirus restrictions, and an extremely weak economy. The country’s financial state is at its worst since the beginning of the war in 2011; the Syrian pound is at an all-time low against the USD on black markets. As a result, the cost of imports and basic food items has soared. All of this is having a profound impact on the population: 60% of Syrians, 12.4m people , are food insecure. 6.7m have been internally displaced.
Kids in cages
America’s Border Patrol is increasingly detaining unaccompanied children who try to cross the US-Mexico border. In December, 48 children were detained for three days. In January that number rose to 179. This week, however, an Axios report revealed at least 700 children had been taken into custody . Of those, 200 young people spent at least 48 hours in detention, with a handful remanded for four or five days. And yet, the number of border crossings are predicted to increase as the year goes on.
“Dare mighty things”
– The message, lifted from a Teddy Roosevelt speech, that was inscribed on the parachute of NASA's Perseverance rover which successfully touched down on Mars this week. Naturally, it wasn't written in plain English, but in a cryptic colour series that needed to be decoded by eagle-eyed watchers (space nerds).
- The number of Londoners, one in ten of them to be precise, who hold more than £720,000 in assets. This means there are more 'dollar millionaires' (very posh people) in Britain's capital than there are in New York. No wonder the rent is a nightmare.
- Tesla's share-price slid significantly early in the week after its extremely-online CEO Elon Musk kept tweeting about cryptocurrency valuations. It also wiped $15b off his net worth. Keep tweeting, we dare you!
"Drug-sniffing dog finds cereal frosted with $2.8m worth of cocaine in Ohio" – The Guardian . This goes some way to explaining why some people energetically claim that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
The special mention
This week a mystery bidder spent half a million American dollars on a nonfungible token – a new-fangled digital art asset. What exactly? The original GIF file of Nyan Cat , the early Internet 2.0 cartoon cat with a pop-tart body that is flying through space leaving a rainbow in its wake. The buyer wasn't acquiring the license or rights, so to speak, but the knowledge that they hold the first Nyan Cat file. However, if you think this is any more ludicrous or any less-tenuously attached to reality than collateralised debt obligations, then I've got some PepeCoins to sell you (yes, a cryptocurrency based on the trading of rare jpegs of the Pepe meme frog).
A few choice long-reads
- McKinsey has suffered significant blows to its reputation in recent years – it's losing its mystique. Financial Times asks: who consults the consultants?
- A Pennsylvanian pension fund ended up fuelling an oil war in Iraqi Kurdistan. How? Bloomberg Businessweek dives into a cracking example of how capital flows wherever it can.
- You're a failure; and that's a good thing. The Atlantic explores the psychology of failing, and why you should do more of it.
Tom Wharton @trwinwriting