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For Atlanta spa victim Suncha Kim, America was always where she felt she belonged

By Michelle Ye Hee Lee
For Atlanta spa victim Suncha Kim, America was always where she felt she belonged
Suncha Kim and her granddaughter pose about 20 years ago in Virginia. MUST CREDIT: Photo courtesy of the family of Suncha Kim

Long before Suncha Kim settled into her adopted country of America, she knew it was where she and her family belonged.

She would visit street markets in Seoul to exchange Korean won for dollars, which she then used to buy pizza at a U.S. military base. She enrolled her daughter in an elementary school that taught English, and introduced her to "Peter Pan" the musical after it debuted in South Korea in the 1970s.

Kim loved everything about America, her family said. The grandeur. The food. The diverse races and religions. The land was vast - and so too, it seemed, were the opportunities.

America was also the place where, at 69 years old, Kim would be killed. She was one of eight people, six of them Asian women, slain by a gunman at three Atlanta-area spas last month.

The tragedy outraged Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders across the U.S., galvanizing the "Stop Asian Hate" movement as a formidable counterweight to the rise in reports of violence aimed at these communities - attacks disproportionately reported by Asian women over the past year.

The deaths of the six Asian women, all workers or managers at the spas, ignited a debate about race, class and gender, and drew particular attention to the struggles of immigrants working lower-wage service jobs to provide for their families. Their stories have highlighted the often overlooked vulnerabilities of such women, who can face language barriers and financial struggle while settling in the United States.

As they grieve their sudden and violent loss, Kim's family said they hoped she would be remembered for her love - for them and for America, her home for the last four decades.

In their first extended interview since the shooting, three members of Kim's immediate family shared their memories of her life of sacrifice and grit as a first-generation immigrant, and their struggles as they contend with the continuing attacks against people of Asian descent. They spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing a desire for privacy, but called on the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community to more forcefully denounce such racism. And as attention inevitably turns to the suspect's criminal trial, they want to ensure the victims' stories, and their legacies, don't become forgotten.

"We just ask that the AAPI community not let our mothers and grandmothers, our ummunees and halmunees, die in vain," said one of her children, using Korean phrases to describe mothers and grandmothers. "We have to make sure that the victims, their names will go on forever."

- - -

Kim arrived in Texas in 1980 with her 1-year-old son in tow. The first thing she ate was a corn dog at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. She had never tasted anything like it before.

She was about 29, a mother of two, and a wife to a man to whom she would remain married for more than 50 years until her death. Her daughter and husband joined them in America about five years later.

Kim's own mother died when she was in middle school, and as the oldest daughter, she was left to care for three younger sisters and her father, a police officer. She eventually helped them move to the United States, including by helping pay for her sisters' school tuition.

She and her husband lived a modest life in Seoul, and she was always fascinated with America and Western culture, her family said.

She admired the American democratic system, her family said, in the way that is common among some South Koreans of her generation who grew up during their country's own turbulent period of democratization.

Among her proudest achievements was becoming a U.S. citizen, they said, and she described her naturalization ceremony as one of the happiest days of her life.

"We went back a few times [to Korea] but this was home. America was home for her. This is where she wanted to die. She wanted to die in the United States," one of her children said.

But life in America was not easy. She spoke little English and worked two to three jobs at a time to survive - as a waitress, a janitor, a convenience store cashier.

Her family recalled her first job in Texas, washing dishes at an Army post near Killeen and scrubbing pots so big she could almost fit inside. She felt proud when she saved enough money to buy a car so she could drive herself to work - and it didn't matter to her that it was so beat-up the headlights were falling off, they said.

"I don't think she knew how hard it was going to be settling in a new country, because probably she had only heard and seen good things about here, the American Dream," one of her children said.

Despite the hardships, Kim maintained a positive attitude for her family, they said. She worked long hours, often coming home while her children were asleep, but left notes in their textbooks to let them know she was thinking of them.

Kim was a devout Catholic who attended church regularly and volunteered to help the homeless and underprivileged children. She used her cooking skills to feed the elderly at church and to raise money for a nonprofit that works to eliminate child hunger, said Agnes Choi, a friend with whom Kim attended church and volunteer work.

"She always thought about other people first. She was always smiling. She was always happy," Choi said.

Kim lived with her family for many years in the greater Washington, D.C., area, where she helped to feed the homeless and, in 2011, was recognized with a President's Volunteer Service Award, according to a certificate provided by the family.

Being a loving mother and grandmother was her top priority, especially after losing her own mother as a teen, her family said. She taught her children to love their own children fully: "As much as you can give," she would say.

Kim frequently left voice mails and wrote letters reminding her children and her three grandchildren that she loved them and that she was praying for them. In a letter last spring, Kim wrote in Korean:

"To my daughter, whom I love. Always remember this: The best thing I did in my life was raising all of you as God's children. Thank you, God.

. . . To my granddaughter, you are beautiful, so beautiful. Grandma loves you, and you are beautiful. Study hard and take care of your siblings, and have courage. I love you."

She signed the letter with an English word used by Koreans to express motivation and support: "Fighting."

- - -

In early March, Kim bought two pairs of sneakers: One for herself, and one for her daughter, so they could take a long walk together over Easter and enjoy the springtime weather, her favorite time of the year. She planned on traveling to Virginia from Georgia to attend Easter Mass with her family. Kim was scheduled to receive her coronavirus vaccines in time for the trip.

In her free time, Kim enjoyed taking Zumba classes and dancing to a Justin Bieber playlist. She loved gardening and flowers, especially daisies and cosmos, a popular flower in Korea. And she loved animals, cooking and hiking.

Kim had moved to Georgia a few years ago because of the big Korean community there, in hopes that she and her husband could spend their retirement years there, her family said. Her husband, 76, recently retired and lives with family members.

The Korean population in Georgia has ballooned over the past two decades, and the state is now home to one of the largest Korean American communities in the country.

Georgia's Korean business community has grown to offer everything from real estate and pest control to medical, legal and insurance services. There are churches, radio stations, newspapers and even phone books that cater to Koreans, and the growth has organically drawn more immigrants like Kim who are seeking a community they can navigate more easily.

A relative in Georgia recommended she work at Gold Spa, where she cleaned, cooked and did laundry for the other employees, her family said. Then, on March 16, the unthinkable: A gunman opened fire at three spas in the Atlanta area, including Gold Spa. Kim was shot twice in the chest, according to the autopsy report.

Earlier that day, Kim texted her daughter a photo of their new shoes: "Look, this is for you and me." Then she called later in the day, asking her daughter if she ate lunch, and they talked some more about their new shoes and her upcoming trip. That was their last call together.

Unlike many other mass shootings, it took several days for the victims' names to be confirmed by authorities. In that void, media coverage of the attacks was dominated by stories about the alleged shooter, Robert Aaron Long, his suspected motives, and conjecture over whether the killings constituted a hate crime.

For Kim's family, the delay was agonizing. They were unable to verify her death or know when they would be able to view her body. They said the experience spoke to the marginalization and invisibility of Asian women, especially older immigrants who have led quiet lives.

When the names were finally released and the victims' families were asked to speak about them, Kim's loved ones struggled to balance the Korean cultural expectations of keeping family matters private with wanting Kim's story to be told, they said.

"Culturally speaking, we struggle to share heartache. We do sort of keep it to ourselves and we grieve in silence. We've had a hard time being able to balance that," her granddaughter said.

Last spring, as reports of attacks against Asian Americans began spiking amid a backlash to the coronavirus pandemic, which originated in China, Kim warned her children to be careful of their surroundings. "Be careful when you go out," she told them. "They're angry at Oriental people."

The family said they were heartbroken to see another mass shooting, this time in Boulder, Colo., occur less than a week after the shootings in Atlanta.

And they are appalled by the continued attacks aimed at Asians, including a recent incident in New York where a man repeatedly kicked a 65-year-old Asian woman while making anti-Asian statements.

They thanked the public for the flood of support, prayers and donations to their GoFundMe page and for peaceful rallies calling for an end to racism and discrimination.

"While there's evil in this world, when we see things like that, there's still hope, and we see that there's still more love in the world," one of her children said, "and my mother would have loved that. My mother would have known that there's still love and positivity in the world."

Floyd's death led to concern for race and racism, but it's unclear what that means

By Silvia Foster-Frau, et al.
Floyd's death led to concern for race and racism, but it's unclear what that means
Crystal Lescault poses for a portrait at her Minneapolis home in March 2021. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Joshua Lott

MINNEAPOLIS - Every morning, Crystal Lescault stares at the app on her phone that has been counting the days since George Floyd's death.

On Tuesday, it read 330. And she wondered whether that number would be the one.

Lescault spent nearly a year praying for a guilty verdict in the case against former police officer Derek Chauvin, who is accused of killing Floyd by putting his knee on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes. In the past few weeks, she's been unable to look away from the trial coverage, struggling to concentrate at work and experiencing escalating, debilitating anxiety as businesses boarded up their windows and police walked near her house, which is four blocks from where Floyd was killed.

"I could probably have tuned this out better in a different life, but not as a mother of a Black child. I have to pay attention. It's important," said Lescault, who is White, is married to a Black man and has biracial twins.

On Tuesday, Chauvin was convicted of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

As Americans awaited the verdict, many found themselves grappling with the racial reckoning brought about by Floyd's death May 25. Since then, huge numbers of Americans have shown up to Black Lives Matter rallies, bought books about racism, planted signs in their front yards and engaged in difficult conversations. Less visible are those who have remained silent and unchanged, making it unclear whether lasting systemic changes are on America's horizon.

Each time a Black person is killed by police or racism-fueled violence occurs, there is a burst of awareness and discussion, calls for action and promises of change - which often fade as time passes. Floyd's death, which was captured in a video viewed by millions, ignited a response that seemed to be longer lasting and has been resurgent as Chauvin stood trial.

Before the verdict, many residents of the Minneapolis area reflected on what the outcome could be and what it would mean.

For some, including Lescault, the verdict was be a symbolic measurement of where the United States is in its fight for racial equity. His conviction, they said before the announcement, is a sign that progress is being made. Anything less than that, they said, would have showed that nothing had changed.

Others struggle to see this trial as anything more than one police officer on trial for one crime, saying no deeper meaning should be gleaned from the outcome.

And others are not quite sure what to make of the trial, or how they fit in amid the Black Lives Matter protests and the pro-law-enforcement "thin blue line" flags.

Public concern for race and racism increased in June after Floyd's death, fell slightly in August, then plateaued in recent months at a higher level than it was before, according to Gallup polling. Although Gallup has seen similar spikes in attitudes about race in years past, this shift appears to be longer lasting than those before it.

But it's unclear how permanent this shift in opinion is. In the poll, issues of race and racism were considered one of the top four U.S. priorities but were overshadowed by concerns about the pandemic, the government, and the economy and unemployment. Levels of concern also split sharply along racial lines, with White Americans less concerned about racial issues than Black and Hispanic Americans.

After following the trial coverage for days, Justin Gelking said Chauvin should not have put his knee on Floyd's neck for those nine-plus minutes. But the 33-year-old, who is a fan of the phrase "All Lives Matter," does not think race was a factor in Floyd's death.

"Seems like a one-time thing that hopefully won't happen again," he said as he left his shift Monday as a dishwasher at Billy's Bar and Grill, a restaurant in the northwestern suburb of Anoka, Minn. He'd watched the concluding arguments of the trial that morning.

Gelking, who is White, said that police are "good at protecting people and doing what they're supposed to be doing," and that no matter what the jury decides about Chauvin's actions, that would not change.

Some experts say systemic racism is too entrenched in American society for one incident to make a difference.

Helen Neville said she's not convinced that Floyd's death "caught on video will transform U.S. society and people's opinions without deep, deep reflection and engagement." Neville, a University of Illinois professor who specializes in the psychology of racism, said: "I do see there's been conversations, but we'll see if real change happens."

- - -

In the weeks before Floyd died, reports were showing that Black and Latino Americans were becoming infected with the coronavirus and dying at higher rates than Whites.

On the morning of May 25, a Black birdwatcher in Central Park named Christian Cooper asked Amy Cooper, a White woman of no relation, to put her dog on a leash in a zone of the park where that's required. When she refused, he recorded her as she called police and told them that "an African American man" was threatening her. It sparked national outrage.

Several hours later that same day, a nine-minute video circulated that showed Chauvin putting his knee on Floyd's neck as Floyd pleaded for air, called out for his mother and died.

"It served as an awakening point," said Neville. "It alerted people to the harsh realities of police brutality directed toward Black folks, which then served as a symbol for institutional racism."

Samuel Sinyangwe, co-founder of Campaign Zero, an organization that tracks police violence and advocates for changes, said the video was unusual in the way it captured the "cold, emotionless expressions" on Chauvin's face.

He also pointed out that the presence of three other police officers in the video may have disabused some viewers of the "bad apple" myth - that the officers portrayed in police brutality videos are bad people who slipped through the cracks of a reliable system, as opposed to the officers being a symptom of a larger, systemic problem in U.S. policing. Those three officers are charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.

Then there were Floyd's last words, which included calling out for his mother.

The cries were a universal signifier, one that hit home for mothers across the racial spectrum. In Portland, Ore., a "wall of moms" formed during protests, with White women putting themselves between police and protesters of color. They grew to become such a symbol for White women's involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement that the group became an official nonprofit.

As the White proportion of the U.S. population shrinks, White buy-in becomes less essential to these movements, said Tim Wise, author of "Dispatches from the Race War." But for now, "in a society of white supremacy, Black moral authority" is not enough, Wise said.

In the Floyd video, the racism was overt, said David Campt, creator of the White Ally Toolkit. He said the video did not display "new racism," which he described as the subtle, unconscious kind that is difficult to see without an education on race issues and a willingness to view the world through a racialized lens.

That lack of subtlety, Campt said, has helped expose the more subtle acts ever since.

With the coronavirus raging last summer, many people were working at home and more exposed to the media images and details of Floyd's death, experts said. When protesters took to the streets in cities large and small across the country, it made the Black Lives Matter movement ubiquitous in the digital and physical realms, therefore unavoidable for many.

And Floyd's death occurred while the country was being led by President Donald Trump, who stoked racial tensions during his campaign and presidency. Floyd died during Trump's final year in office, as thousands of suburban voters were shifting left and preparing to vote for a different candidate in November.

It is for all these reasons that the video of Floyd stood apart from the others. And it's why many see the trial as a test: If this video would not make a difference, what would?

For Eryn Frost, 33, watching the video was a profound experience that she said changed her and made her realize that she had done racist things in the past, such as shuffling the job applications of those with hard-to-pronounce names to the bottom of the stack. The White resident of Prior Lake - a southwestern suburb of Minneapolis - grew up conservative and was the president of her college's Republican group. In 2016, she and her husband voted for minor-party candidate Gary Johnson.

But when Trump became president, a "crack" formed in the couple's mind-set, she said, and they became increasingly dissatisfied with where the country was headed. Then Floyd died, and Frost said "the whole thing exploded."

"You're like, 'What the hell is happening? What the hell is going on?' And then you realize this has always been going on," she said. "And once you hit that realization it's like, oh my God."

- - -

As the sun began to set over the George Floyd memorial site, Anna Ashcroft's son ran up to her, chalk in hand.

"Mama, how do you spell justice?" the boy asked, before writing out "Justice for everyone" in green chalk, feet from where Floyd died.

"This felt like the right place for us to be," said Ashcroft, who is White and was hoping for a guilty verdict. "In my mind, this is them processing," she said of her children's scrawls. It was Floyd's death that moved Ashcroft to talk to them about racism and police violence.

As the jury began deliberations Monday night, a feeling of anxiety mounted across the city. Many were concerned about what the verdict could mean for their hometown - whether people will get hurt, whether small businesses could suffer blows, whether troops would march in their streets.

"If they don't convict [Chauvin] of murder, I don't even know," said Zaynab Mohamed, a 23-year-old Somali American who awoke Tuesday morning after a sleepless night in her home blocks from where Floyd died. "I think we wonder, 'Are we less than human?' Because every one of us sees themselves in George Floyd."

She said many in the Somali community were watching the Chauvin trial after the 2019 verdict against Mohamed Noor, a Black, Somali Minneapolis police officer who was convicted of manslaughter and murder for killing 40-year-old Justine Damond, a White woman.

Miles away at an intersection near a CVS Pharmacy that burned during protests last year, was rebuilt and has been newly boarded up following the Daunte Wright killing in nearby Brooklyn Center, Brandon Bollig, 30, was walking his dog and following the latest trial updates "1,000%."

Wearing a Black Lives Matter wristband, Bollig spoke to the fact that Black and White people are not policed equally.

Tim Bohmer, 60, had not been following the trial closely and said he was not sure that Chauvin was guilty of murder - though he said what the officer did was wrong. Instead of framing it as a racism problem, Bohmer said police have "bad habits" that get passed on to their subordinates in a vicious cycle.

"I truly hope the city doesn't destruct itself. My biggest fear is we're going to go through what we went through last summer all over again," Bohmer said.

Leslie Redmond, former president of the local NAACP, said she was nearly drained of emotion.

"We're exhausted, and I cannot reiterate that enough. You can hear it in my voice," she said, her voice scratchy and quiet. "There's a lot of wear and tear on Black people."

- - -

Guskin reported from Washington. The Washington Post's Marisa Iati contributed to this report.

The girl in the Kent State photo and the lifelong burden of being a national symbol

By Patricia McCormick
The girl in the Kent State photo and the lifelong burden of being a national symbol
Mary Ann Vecchio today. The photo of her kneeling over the body of Kent State University student Jeffrey Miller in 1970 is one of the most important images of the 20th century. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Jeffery A. Salter

Last May, when Mary Ann Vecchio watched the video of George Floyd's dying moments, she felt herself plummet through time and space - to a day almost exactly 50 years earlier. On that afternoon in 1970, the world was just as riveted by an image that showed the life draining out of a young man on the ground, this one a black-and-white still photo. Mary Ann was at the center of that photo, her arms raised in anguish, begging for help.

That photo, of her kneeling over the body of Kent State University student Jeffrey Miller, is one of the most important images of the 20th century. Taken by student photographer John Filo, it captures Mary Ann's raw grief and disbelief at the realization that the nation's soldiers had just fired at its own children. The Kent State Pietà, as it's sometimes called, is one of those rare photos that fundamentally changed the way we see ourselves and the world around us. Like the image of the solitary protester standing in front of a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square. Or the photo of Kim Phuc, the naked Vietnamese girl fleeing the napalm that has just incinerated her home. Or the image of Aylan Kurdi's tiny, 3-year-old body facedown in the sand, he and his mother and brother having drowned while fleeing Syria.

These images shocked our collective conscience - and insisted that we look. But eventually we look away, unaware, or perhaps unwilling, to think about the suffering that went on long after the shutter has snapped - or of the cost to the human beings trapped inside those photos. "That picture hijacked my life," says Mary Ann, now 65. "And 50 years later, I still haven't really moved on."

- - -

Mary Ann Vecchio has granted few interviews in 25 years, and as a child of the '60s - with her own entanglement with the FBI - she's still a bit wary. Partway through the first of what would go on to be a dozen interviews over the phone, she stops abruptly. "Are you doing this on your own?" she asks. I'm freelancing, I tell her. Is that what she means? No, she wants to know if I'm working with a political party. Or law enforcement. "When you've lived the life I have," she says, "you still worry that maybe people are after you." She also tells me she's researched me before agreeing to speak. "I'm a little FBI-ish myself, in a renegade way," she says. "And I'm also still that hippie kid who always sees a rainbow."

Before Kent State, she says, she was a free spirit. "I was the kid rolling down the river on a raft," she recalls. "I was magic. In my childhood, I believed anything was possible." But her home in Opa-locka, Fla., not far from Miami International Airport, where her father was a carpenter, could be volatile. When her parents fought, she and her brothers and sisters would scatter, with Mary Ann hiding out in spots as far away as Miami Beach, some 15 miles from home. Soon she got in trouble - smoking pot, skipping school. So in February 1970, when the police told Mary Ann, then 14, that they'd throw her in jail if they caught her playing hooky one more time, she took off - in her bare feet. She says she wasn't rebelling against her parents' authority or seeking to join the antiwar movement: "I just wanted to be anywhere that wasn't Opa-locka."

Hitchhiking her way across the country, Mary Ann slept in fields, at hamburger shacks, at crash pads, working here and there for money for food, which she shared with other kids who were also bumming around. Seeing the country, meeting new people, sharing music and the occasional joint - the adventure had that feeling of magic from her childhood. Until, that is, she got to Kent State in northern Ohio, where, on May 4, student protests erupted over President Richard Nixon's decision to invade Cambodia. Mary Ann, in her jeans, white scarf and a pair of hippie sandals someone had given her, headed toward a field where students were gathered. On her way to join the protest, she struck up a conversation with a guy in bell-bottoms. The two of them watched as another student waved a black flag, taunting the National Guard troops who had been sent in after protesters had burned down the ROTC building two nights before. The soldiers seemed to retreat to a nearby hill; then, in the next 13 seconds, they fired more than 60 shots.

Mary Ann dropped to the pavement and waited until the smoke had cleared to look up. Jeffrey Miller, the student she'd been talking to, was facedown on the ground; he'd been shot through the mouth. She knelt over his body as blood seeped onto the pavement. Other students walked by, too stunned or confused to look. "Doesn't anyone see what just happened here?" she remembers crying. "Why is no one helping him?" As the soldiers approached, their guns at the ready, she recalls asking them a question that countless others across the country would soon ask as well: "Why did you do this?"

Nearby were more bodies. Allison Krause was shot in the chest; William Schroeder in the back. Sandy Scheuer, who was just passing through the area on her way to class, was struck by a bullet that hit her jugular vein. Four dead in Ohio.

- - -

John Filo was a senior at Kent State in May 1970, a student photographer who almost missed out on covering the protests because he'd been in the woods taking pictures of teaberry leaves for his senior thesis that weekend. All the other photographers on the student paper had assignments from out-of-town papers, so John, 21, was working in the newspaper office to help process their pictures. On his lunch break, he grabbed a camera and stepped outside. He went straight toward the action, where a student in the no man's land between soldiers and students waved a black flag. John snapped a photo thinking, "Okay, I've got my picture." A moment later, the soldiers formed a rifle line. "I put my camera to my eye and trained it on one of the soldiers," he says. "He aimed toward me, and then his gun goes off. The next thing I know, a bullet hits a tree next to me and a chunk of bark flew off."

John dropped to the ground and waited out the 13 seconds of gunfire. When the smoke cleared, he stood and patted his arms and legs, checking to see if he'd been hit. "It was like slow motion. I just kept wondering, 'How come I'm not shot?' " Then, not 10 feet away, he saw a body on the ground. John was running out of film as he saw a girl kneel beside the body. "I knew the boy was dead, but I could tell she didn't know," he told me. "I could see something building in her, and all of a sudden she lets out this scream and I shoot. I shoot one more picture, and I'm out of film." By the time he had reloaded his camera, the girl was gone.

John remembers the soldiers ordering students who were lingering at the scene to disperse - "or they'd shoot again." A few moments later, soldiers using bullhorns announced that the university was closed. "They ordered everyone to go home."

Mary Ann just remembers running. She didn't know anyone at Kent State; she'd known Miller for only 25 minutes. But she saw National Guard troops herding students onto buses, so she followed in a daze. Some two hours later, when the bus arrived in Columbus, the soldiers told everyone to get off. Many of the students ran to waiting parents. Mary Ann stumbled around the streets of the city; she'd never even heard of Columbus.

Back on campus, students were yelling at John, calling him a pig, a vulture. John yelled back. "No one's going to believe this happened," he told them. "This," he said, pointing to his camera, "is proof." When he saw Guard troops cutting down electric lines, John ran to his car. After hiding the film inside a hubcap, he drove two hours to the office of his hometown newspaper in western Pennsylvania to process his film. As he watched the film develop, he knew he had something the world needed to see.

When he called the Associated Press from the newsroom of the Valley Daily News of Tarentum, he was told the news service had plenty of Kent State photos coming in from its bureau in Akron, Ohio, and that its entire wire capacity was being used to transmit those photos. But when there was an unexpected break in the transmissions from Akron, John jumped on the wire and sent his photo. His image of the grieving girl ran on the front pages of newspapers all over the world the next day. The caption identified her simply as a "coed."

I remember seeing the picture in my hometown paper. At 12, I wondered if the nation's adults were intent on killing their own children, in Vietnam and now at home. But Mary Ann cannot remember the first time she saw the photo; she has no memory of the moment when she became the most famous unknown person in the world.

- - -

The days after the shooting went by in a haze for her. She hitchhiked out of Columbus, drifting west and sleeping wherever she could. She had heard she was wanted by the FBI, so she didn't tell anyone who she was. She wound up at a crash pad in Indianapolis, thinking that if she could just get to California, she could start her life over again, but a kid at the house where she was staying recognized her and tipped off a reporter from the Indianapolis Star. Mary Ann, barely disguised in a granny gown and fake glasses, talked to the reporter, hoping he'd give her bus fare to California in exchange for her story. The reporter got his scoop, then called the authorities, who put her in juvenile detention as a runaway.

"I would have stayed anonymous forever," she says. "But that guy from the Indianapolis Star, he knocked out my future." Within days, she was back home in Opa-locka.

Many people refused to believe the nearly 6-foot-tall girl with the long, flowing hair and the mournful face was only 14. Her family received calls and letters calling her a drug addict, a tramp, a communist. The governor of Florida said she was "part of a nationally organized conspiracy of professional agitators" that was "responsible for the students' death." While some people saw her as a symbol of the national conscience, some Kent State students expressed resentment about her fame, saying she wasn't even a protester.

Back in Kent, Ohio, local business owners ran an ad thanking the National Guard. Mail poured in to the mayor's office, blaming "dirty hippies," "longhairs" and "outside agitators" for the violence. Some Kent residents raised four fingers when they passed each other in the street, a silent signal that meant, "At least we got four of them." Nixon issued a statement saying that the students' actions had invited the tragedy. Privately, he called them "bums." And a Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Americans blamed the students for their own deaths; only 11 percent blamed the National Guard.

The FBI also questioned John. They demanded his film, he says, and when he refused, he remembers them tailing him for nearly a week. He says his phone rang nonstop with crank callers insisting that the photo was fake. He got hate mail, including a letter that, as he recalls, read, "I had a friend die in Vietnam. You're next."

John was still reeling from his close call with the Guard when the Indianapolis Star ran the story identifying the subject of his photo not as a college student but as a teenage runaway. That, he says, "was a heavy weight to carry."

- - -

Back in Opa-locka, Mary Ann couldn't go to Royal Castle for a burger without reporters and hecklers following her. Death threats filled the Vecchio family mailbox. "It's too bad it wasn't you that was shot." "What you need is a good beating until you bleed red." "I hope you enjoyed sleeping with all those Negroes and dope fiends." "The deaths of the Kent State four lies on the conscience of yourself." At 14, she was a human flashpoint, her face on magazine covers, posters and handbills. The humor magazine National Lampoon ran a fake ad for a Kent State playset, complete with toy soldiers, protesters and "1 kneeling student." And not that long ago, the Onion ran a satiric news story calling a loss by the Kent State basketball team a "massacre." Mary Ann's face is photoshopped onto the body of a cheerleader, kneeling over a fallen basketball player.

Her father sold T-shirts with Mary Ann's grieving image on the front. She signed the shirts - and the occasional autograph - still in a state of shock. "People thought we were getting rich, but we never had any money," she says. "It sounds bad, but my dad did what he did for me. He was taking care of me in the only way he knew how."

What the traumatized teenager didn't get was counseling. It didn't even occur to her. "I was too afraid," she says. "He," she notes, referring to Jeffrey Miller, the boy in the photo, "was a college student. I was just a runaway. I felt less than. And I felt like I did something dirty because that's the way I was treated."

She ran away from home again and got caught, ending up in juvenile detention. "They tried to give me Thorazine," she says. She ran away from there, too, was caught again and returned. But when she was sent back home, she recalls, the police followed her incessantly, arresting her for loitering, for smoking pot. "I was a mess, like I was trying to punch my way out of a paper bag," she says.

Later, in 1977, Mary Ann was profiled by "60 Minutes" as a "maladjusted kid." For the segment, she read aloud from the hateful letters she'd received, which were spread out on her parents' dining table. Morley Safer said she "wasn't a symbol of the tragedy of the Vietnam War. She wasn't a symbol of anything." Just a "14-year-old nobody hitchhiking from nowhere to nowhere." He seemed, at least to me as I watched the segment recently, to take smug satisfaction in the trouble she had after Kent State, turning her into a national cautionary tale.

"Everyone had a piece of me," Mary Ann says. "And when everyone in the world thinks they know who you are, you don't want to be who you are."

- - -

John Filo's picture would win a Pulitzer Prize. His photo, Time magazine said, captured the sense that the Vietnam War had come home and "distilled that feeling into a single image." But he, too, was haunted. "I felt very guilty," he says. "An arm's length to my right, a guy was shot. An arm's length or two to my left, that's where Jeffrey Miller was killed. I'm alive and I'm relatively famous, and they're dead." And when he read that the police had been harassing Mary Ann, he felt responsible.

Eventually, at age 22, Mary Ann took off from Florida, moved to Las Vegas, married and got a job in a casino coffee shop. She was rarely mentioned in news stories commemorating the events of May 4, 1970. In May 1990, she told the Orlando Sentinel that the photograph had "really destroyed my life." Still, she said, she was proud of a job where she wore a nicely pressed blouse and skirt and where she'd built a new life far removed from the shooting. "Kent State has nothing to do with my life," she said.

By that time, she'd also learned it was risky to tell people that she was the girl in the iconic photo. "The less I said, the safer I felt," she recalls. And while she took pride in her job and the stability she'd achieved, underneath she carried a sadness about the way her life had turned out. "My life was already upside-down by the time of Kent State, but with some different guidance, maybe I could have made something of myself," she says. "Maybe I could've done something good with my life. That's the damage, when you don't get to be who you were going to be."

Meanwhile, John went on to have a successful career as a photographer. (Today he's the head of photography for CBS.) He says that not a day went by that he didn't think about the Kent State students - or Mary Ann. Sometimes he had nightmares about her. When he became a father and looked in his daughter's eyes, he saw Mary Ann's eyes. He tortured himself by wondering how he'd feel if someone had taken his daughter's photo in such a vulnerable moment. "I thought about reaching out to her many times," he says. "But I figured she hated me."

It was Gregory Payne, a professor at Emerson College and author of "Mayday, Kent State," who had an idea that he thought might help them both. In 1995 he organized a 25-year retrospective on Kent State and Mississippi's Jackson State, where students had been shot and killed by police around the same time. He invited both Mary Ann and John to attend. "Mary Ann was open to the idea, but John wasn't initially," Payne says. "He always felt terrible about trapping her in that picture, and he'd read that she said it ruined her life." The day before they were to meet, Payne recalls, he asked Mary Ann what she was going to say to John. "She said she had no idea."

"I was kind of mad at (John) for a long time," Mary Ann says. "He's lucky. He's done very well. He's got a nice house. He's got everything. He got the pony." She laughs at that. "I got the crap."

John says he "dreaded ever meeting Mary Ann," but he accepted Payne's invitation to the retrospective, unsure, until the last minute, if he would go through with it. When Payne brought the two of them together for a private meeting before the opening ceremony, no one knew what to expect. "John looked so scared," Payne says. But Mary Ann surprised everyone. "I saw the anguish in his eyes," she says of John, "and, you know, I felt sorry for him." She smiled, took his hand and hugged him. They both cried.

Even though they'd never before met, Mary Ann says that she and John had the instant bond of a pair of old army buddies. "It was kind of a war," she says. And neither of them had ever really been recognized as among the casualties. Kent State had haunted them both, from opposite ends of the lens.

Later that day, as Mary Ann spoke to the assembled group about the trauma of the Kent State shootings, John had an epiphany about the power of his photo. "It was because she was 14, because of her youth, that she ran to help, that she ran to do something. There were other people, 18, 19, 20 years old, who didn't get close to the body. She did because she was a kid. She was a kid reacting to the horror in front of her. Had she not been 14, the picture wouldn't have had the impact it did."

After the retrospective, John gave her a signed copy of the photo. The inscription: "For the courageous Mary Ann Vecchio, I cannot fathom how this photograph affected your life. I'm proud to call you a friend."

- - -

Mary Ann lived in Las Vegas for nearly 20 years, moving up from her job in the coffee shop to the casino floor, where she had the keys to pay out the slot machine jackpots. She says she dreamed of being a lawyer. But something told her, "Don't get too successful, don't get too visible. Don't be too happy." Hiding was much safer, she says.

In 2001, however, she took the story of her life back into her own hands. She had earned a high school diploma at the age of 39; now in her mid-40s, she was ready to study for a career in health. She also ended an unhappy marriage and started over again by returning to Florida. She bought a 24-foot camper, worked full time at the Trump Spa at Doral, enrolled at nearby Miami Dade Community College and studied to be a respiratory therapist. Between shifts and classes she spent time nursing her dying mother.

"Everybody at the Doral loved Mary Ann," says longtime friend Charlotte Brewer, 85. "She has this very caring personality." Still, Mary Ann didn't tell her about the photo until it popped up on Charlotte's phone one day. "That's me," Mary Ann said. At first Charlotte couldn't believe it, but she soon understood: The girl who ran to help an injured student at Kent State was the same person who saw her massage work as healing treatments for her clients and who was training to help patients with respiratory problems. Charlotte and her fellow massage therapists were so happy to see Mary Ann on a new professional path, they took her out to lunch after she passed each course. "Maybe that's why I got such good grades," Mary Ann says.

After school, the woman who perhaps had been the most visible symbol of protest against the Vietnam War worked at the Miami VA hospital, where she cared for men who'd served in that war. But she never told them she was the girl from the Kent State photo. Sometimes, she says, she wanted to tell the veterans who she was so she could explain that the protesters weren't anti-soldier, just antiwar, and that they did what they did to bring soldiers home. Instead, she operated on a "no-need-to-know policy." She wanted "to be in the vets' shoes," she says. "I had to make a connection on a spiritual level."

By working with veterans, she learned about resilience and came to understand what being in the line of fire had done to her. "I tried to hide my shell-shockedness from them," she says, but she saw ways in which they were traumatized that echoed some of her own behaviors. "I'm very positional," she says. "Wherever I go, I sit with my back to the wall so I can see what's coming in the front door."

Mary Ann is retired now - she didn't remarry or have children - and leads a quiet life, growing avocados and oranges on a small plot at the edge of the Florida Everglades. Payne, who keeps in regular touch with her and has invited her to speak to his classes at Emerson, credits her "incredibly strong spirit" for her survival. "She also still has that unaffected purity," he says. "That's what you saw in the photo on May 4th. And that's still who she is."

Charlotte says Mary Ann is more like a neighborhood sprite. She pops in to see their older neighbors, bathing them and delivering home-cooked meals. She gets offers to work for pay, but she prefers to "be that surprise person that shows up with banana bread."

Last May, however, when she watched the video of George Floyd's death, she was so shaken, it was as if the electronic scrim of her TV had dissolved. She jumped off her couch and yelled at the crowd in the video, "Why is no one helping him?" She sobs as she describes that moment to me. "Doesn't anyone see what's going on?"

"Mary Ann," I say. "It seems to me that you're still that girl in the photo, you're still that girl saying, 'Doesn't anyone see what's happening here?'"

She stops crying abruptly. "But it's been 50 years," she says. "Why can't I move on?"

What would it take to move on? I ask.

"Maybe if I do some good for the planet," she says. She tells me that she does small, secret acts of charity every weekend, when she goes "undercover" to the Walmart parking lot near her home and leaves canned foods, staples and her homegrown avocados in an empty shopping cart for someone to discover. "I feel like I need to do something good," she says, crying again.

You've already done something profoundly good, I tell her. "In that moment when you knelt over Jeffrey Miller's body," I say, "you expressed the grief and horror that so many people were feeling. You helped end the Vietnam War."

"You can say that," she says, "but I can't feel it."

- - -

Nowadays, the girl who wanted to be anywhere but Opa-locka lives not far from there. No one knows her as the girl from the photo. No one follows her or sends her hate mail, though once in a while she finds an autograph request with a faraway address in her mailbox. Sometimes students find her online and send her letters saying they read about her in their history books. This cracks her up. "I'm a living person," she says with a laugh. "And I'm in a history book! Not many people can say that."

For me, it's hard now not to look at that photo and see a 14-year-old girl, unaware of how that single moment will shape her entire life. She'll become a public figure - as a minor - with no consent and no control over her image or her reputation. Well before there's such a concept as victim-blaming, before social media or Us Weekly, she'll become an object of national fascination - a target for some, a footnote in history to others. She'll be the subject of a photo known the world over, but never really known as a person.

And yet, she eventually defied the narrative that was written for her. She built a new life on her own terms. Far from the public glare that defined her as someone she never was, she's now who she wants to be: someone whose life is both private and purposeful. And on weekends, as she roams the Walmart parking lot near her home, leaving gifts for strangers, it's possible to see that 14-year-old girl before the shutter is snapped, that kid who thinks she's magic.

- - -

Patricia McCormick is a two-time National Book Award finalist. She writes about the effects of trauma on young people.

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Racism and violence in America isn't as simple as black and white

By ruben navarrette jr.
Racism and violence in America isn't as simple as black and white

RUBEN NAVARRETTE COLUMN

FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE

(For Navarrette clients)

WRITETHRU: In 3rd graf from the end, removes apostrophe from 1950s

By RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.

SAN DIEGO -- As a Mexican American who feels left out of the national conversation on race, I have to ask: Do brown lives matter too?

I bet that question occurred to the family of the 70-year-old grandmother in Los Angeles who -- in a bizarre story well-suited for America's most multicultural city -- was allegedly attacked on a bus by a Black woman who thought she was Asian. According to the local newspaper The East Sider, the victim -- who was identified only as "Becky" -- was badly beaten in the April 9 attack, which resulted in a concussion, broken nose, and the ripping of hair and skin from her scalp. Police arrested 23-year-old Yasmine Beasley on suspicion of the attack, and she is also accused of yelling an anti-Chinese epithet.

And I imagine the question is also top of mind for the family of Adam Toledo. The 13-year-old Mexican American boy from Chicago who went into an early grave as a result of what appears to be a "bad shoot" by a White police officer who had three misconduct complaints in five years on the job, none of which led to disciplinary action. According to officer body-cam video footage, Toledo complied with police commands to stop running and put up his hands. He did as he was told. Those who stand with the blue claim that complying with police commands will save your life. But it didn't do much good for Toledo.

To be honest, Toledo made some bad decisions in the early morning hours of March 29. As a teenager, I made a ton of them.

Yet nothing justifies Toledo being shot by police. Officers are often trained by union lawyers to parrot specific language if they're involved in a shooting. They're supposed to say: "I thought my life was in danger" or "I was afraid for my life."

Prosecutors are not bringing charges against Chicago Police Officer Eric Stillman. If they had, the so-called fear defense would have been a tough sell for the 34-year-old, given that -- contrary to false initial statements by authorities and Stillman's attorney -- it's now clear that Toledo was unarmed.

It's true that there was a handgun at the scene. But it was scattered on the ground, behind Toledo, who appears to have tossed the weapon seconds before raising his hands. The shot comes immediately after the boy's hands go up.

I can't count how many times I've heard Hispanics say, in the last few days, something like: "If this had been…" or "Imagine what would have happened if…" They claim that, had Toledo been Black, not only would there be a mugshot of Stillman in an orange jumpsuit but that there would have been wall-to-wall media coverage, public protests, corporate boycotts, and all the rest.

It's as if many Americans only have so much bandwidth in their social justice consciousness, and it's already filled with centuries of injustices inflicted upon African Americans. The fact that former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted Tuesday of the murder of George Floyd fits that traditional black-and-white narrative.

Which brings me back to the question: Do Brown lives matter, too?

In a few weeks, the results of the 2020 Census are expected to be released, and one headline is likely to be: "Hispanics now account for 1 in 5 Americans." America's largest minority -- which surpassed African Americans in number in 2003 -- is sure to break the 20% barrier.

For decades, Hispanics have believed that, as their numbers grew, we'd finally get respect.

It didn't happen. Changing demographics only yielded fear. Hispanics get ignored. We get targeted. And we still can't get the time of day in a country whose imagination is stuck in the black-and-white paradigm of the 1950s.

On cue, last week, conservative white radio host Ben Shapiro flubbed the opening of a show tied to the release of the video documenting the death of Adam Toledo. Shapiro said: "A 13-year-old Black kid is shot by police in Chicago…"

The next time you hear Americans say they're colorblind, believe it. When it comes to color, some people in this country are deaf, dumb (BEG ITAL)and(END ITAL) blind.

- - -

Navarrette's email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com. His daily podcast, "Navarrette Nation," is available through every podcast app.

(c) 2021, The Washington Post Writers Group

The Chauvin verdict is but the first step

By e.j. dionne jr.
The Chauvin verdict is but the first step

E.J. DIONNE COLUMN

Advance for release Wednesday, April 21, 2021, and thereafter

(For Dionne clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

WASHINGTON -- The three guilty verdicts against Derek Chauvin, the police officer who murdered George Floyd by keeping his knee on the neck of a man begging for help and mercy, is the first, absolutely necessary step toward justice in our deeply divided nation.

The jury's decision was a statement by a group of responsible citizens -- "regular people from all walks of life," Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison called them after the verdict was in -- that outrageous violence by police officers is, and must be declared, unacceptable.

Racism must be recognized for what it is. Murder is murder. And the fact that this killing was carried out by an officer sworn to uphold the law made the crime all the more disgraceful.

The import of the Chauvin verdict should not be underestimated, but it will not by itself transform the relationship between police officers and Black Americans. It is a large step forward -- and only the beginning.

This outcome should mark, as Ellison said, "an inflection point," part of a longer "journey to transformation and justice."

"Enough, enough, enough of these senseless killings," President Biden said after the verdict. He called it "a giant step forward toward justice" but noted that just outcomes on behalf of Black Americans were "all too rare." Vice President Harris also lauded the verdict but insisted: "A measure of justice isn't the same as equal justice."

Former president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama also hailed the verdict, but added that "if we're being honest with ourselves, we know that true justice is about much more than a single verdict in a single trial." The Obamas called for "concrete reforms that will reduce and ultimately eliminate racial bias in our criminal justice system."

When Judge Peter A. Cahill read the first verdict of guilty on the toughest charge, murder in the second degree, one could almost hear sighs of relief across the nation.

Our collective relief reflected, above all, the justness of the verdicts but also that the nation would be spared an evening or days of rage over what many Americans of all races and ethnicities, but Black Americans in particular, would have seen as yet another example of a system that was incapable of protecting Black people's safety and their rights.

The fact that Chauvin was tried on two other charges -- third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter -- gave the jury at least the possibility of rendering a "compromise" verdict: holding Chauvin accountable but reducing the penalties he faced.

That the jury did not take this route spoke to the evidence in the case -- the sickening video of a man having the life choked out of him by an officer who already had Floyd in his control. The chief of the Minneapolis Police Department quickly made clear last summer, and again more recently in testimony, that he did not see Chauvin's actions as right, or moral, or justified. Several other police officers also testified about the "unnecessary" force that Chauvin had exerted against the handcuffed, begging Floyd.

It's possible to see the verdict as the product of the awakening that took hold across the country in the wake of Floyd's murder. When Floyd's 6-year-old daughter, Gianna ("Gigi") declared last summer that "Daddy changed the world," she spoke the truth.

Video of Gigi, perched atop the shoulders of Floyd's friend Stephen Jackson, the former NBA player, went viral. Outrage over Floyd's brutal death, Ellison said Tuesday, "sparked a worldwide movement." The jury's verdict showed that change is possible. It also signaled to the world that the struggle for racial equality in the United States, a long history of victories and defeats, of progress and setbacks, of peace and violence, might be bending again toward justice.

Social change can arise from anger and catastrophe, but sustained movements for reform require a measure of hope and a belief that political and legal systems can be pushed in new directions and reshaped for new purposes.

For the sake of the nation, the relief of April 20, 2021, must be the opening for a longer campaign to renew civil rights, preserve voting rights, and enact enduring reforms in our police and criminal justice systems. This was a trial in a single case with a public record so rich that it made denial impossible and alibis unbelievable.

We need a movement for a new system in which the forces of order genuinely protect and serve, in which citizens have confidence in those charged with protecting them and their communities, and in which cries for "law and order" -- a phrase so often drenched in politics and racial animus -- give way to a consistent commitment to safety and security for all.

Our nation should celebrate this moment of justice. Let it then inspire the work that must still be done.

- - -

E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.

Chauvin's conviction shouldn't feel like a victory. But it does.

By eugene robinson
Chauvin's conviction shouldn't feel like a victory. But it does.

EUGENE ROBINSON COLUMN

Advance for release Wednesday, April 21, 2021, and thereafter

(For Robinson clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Eugene Robinson

WASHINGTON -- It shouldn't have been an open question whether a police officer could kneel on a man's neck for more than nine minutes, snuffing out his life, with complete or even partial impunity. We shouldn't have had to hold our collective breath from the moment it was announced there was a verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial to the moment that verdict was read. This shouldn't feel so much like a victory.

But it does. The jurors in Chauvin's trial trusted their eyes and ears. They saw the video of George Floyd pinned to the hard pavement, they heard him plead again and again that he couldn't breathe, and they held Chauvin fully accountable.

They saw George Perry Floyd Jr. -- fully -- as a human being.

So many times, that simple acknowledgment of humanity has apparently been too much to ask. The police officers who killed Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and so many other Black men either were acquitted of wrongdoing or never even charged. Chauvin's conviction is a tremendous relief -- and, one hopes, a beginning.

The jurors did not temporize or attempt to split hairs. They found Chauvin guilty of all three charges, including second-degree murder, for which the former officer could spend up to 40 years in prison. After reading the verdicts and polling the jury, Judge Peter A. Cahill ordered Chauvin taken immediately into custody. To see him led away in handcuffs was a tableau of righteous symmetry.

Perhaps the most important societal milestone marked in this trial is that the jury apparently gave no credence to the attempt by Chauvin's defense to justify how he treated Floyd because of Floyd's race. Defense attorney Eric Nelson didn't mention race explicitly, of course. He used coded language that he hoped the jurors would understand. Floyd's arrest took place in a "high crime" area, he said. The horrified onlookers who watched as Floyd died were a raucous "crowd" that needed to be controlled. The fact that the muscular Floyd was intoxicated gave him "superhuman" strength.

That is how Black men have been stigmatized for 400 years, as powerful and angry and criminal -- and needing to be brought to heel, to be dominated if necessary.

After Floyd's killing, millions of Americans of all races and ethnicities marched in demonstrations across the country to insist that Black lives do matter. Watching the magnitude of the protests, I had a sense that something fundamental might be changing -- that a generalized reckoning with systemic racism might actually begin.

This trial may only be the first step in that process. As Floyd's brother, Philonise, put it at a news conference after the verdict was read, as long as Black Americans like Daunte Wright are still being killed by the police, "We have to march. We will have to do this for life."

But there also needed to be a specific reckoning with what Chauvin did last May 25 at the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis. The prosecutors in Chauvin's trial -- Jerry Blackwell, Steve Schleicher and Matthew Frank -- put on a powerful case that seemed, to me, simply overwhelming. But it was impossible to know what the jurors were thinking.

Speaking for myself, I thought it was a slam-dunk win for the state of Minnesota. But it says a lot about this nation's troubled history that I couldn't believe my own analysis of the trial, couldn't believe my own eyes and ears, couldn't have had the same faith Philonise Floyd said he had that Chauvin would be convicted, until the instant the verdicts were read.

Almost as important as the guilty verdicts is the fact that so many Minneapolis police officers -- including Police Chief Medaria Arradondo -- testified for the prosecution against Chauvin. "Thin blue line" solidarity probably isn't gone forever. But at least we know it has limits. That's a start, and hopefully, a precedent.

"Days like this don't happen," said a joyous Chris Stewart, an attorney for the Floyd family. He pointed out the obvious: It shouldn't be so hard to win justice for a citizen brutally killed by a police officer. We should be under no illusions that justice will be easily won in the next case involving unjustified police violence against an African American. And Black Americans deserve more from law enforcement than not to be killed by police: As Stewart put it, "All too often, African Americans only get the spear or the sword. We need more of the shield."

Right now, though, it is possible to feel both elation and relief. George Floyd won justice today. So did we all.

- - -

Eugene Robinson's email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause is costing American lives

By marc a. thiessen
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause is costing American lives

MARC A. THIESSEN COLUMN

Advance for release Wednesday, April 21, 2021, and thereafter

(For Thiessen clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Marc A. Thiessen

WASHINGTON -- The federal government's decision to halt distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will cost American lives. Indeed, it will almost certainly kill more people by leaving them exposed to covid-19 than might have died from extremely rare vaccine side effects.

Unfortunately, their deaths do not factor into the calculations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration because no one will ever know the names of those who perished as a result of being denied this lifesaving vaccine -- while public health officials are held to account for those who die from it. These perverse incentives are costing lives.

Just eight people out of roughly 7.4 million who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have developed a blood-clot complication. Only one person has died. Not 1,000, not 100 -- one. A causal relationship between the vaccine and these blood clots has not yet been established. Moreover, nearly all the adverse events are in women 18 to 48 years old. Yet U.S. health officials have stopped all Americans, regardless of age or gender, from getting the vaccine.

This makes no sense. We are in the midst of a public health emergency. Hundreds of Americans are still dying every day from covid-19, and we are in a race to save lives by immunizing as many as possible. Demand for vaccines still exceeds supply. There are no stockpiles of extra doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines sitting on refrigerated shelves in warehouses waiting to replace all the Johnson & Johnson doses the government has withheld. That means the pause will leave many who would have been immunized against the coronavirus unprotected.

How many lives has the government unnecessarily endangered? Just before the FDA announced its pause on April 13, the United States was administering approximately 475,000 Johnson & Johnson doses per day.Pulling those vaccines from circulation has led to canceled appointments at vaccine clinics across the country, leaving untold numbers of Americans at greater risk of contracting and dying from covid-19. Many of those who have had their Johnson & Johnson vaccination appointments canceled are in vulnerable populations -- including the homeless, migrant workers, residents of remote rural areas and those who are vaccine hesitant -- who were more likely to be reached by the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that requires just one dose and no special storage.

These Americans have a far greater chance of dying from covid-19 than they would have from the vaccine. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, points out that an unvaccinated person's risk of getting covid may be as high as 1 in 1,000 per day, and that person's chances of dying from covid once they get it is about 1 in 100. So, he calculates, each unvaccinated day the risk of death is 1 in 100,000.

The risk of death after taking the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, by contrast, is 1 in 7.4 million The danger of developing blood clots from covid is also far greater than from the vaccine. One study of more than 8,000 covid patients found that about 20% of those hospitalized with covid-19 developed blood clots, which increased to 31% among patients in an intensive care unit. By contrast, 0.000001% of people who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have developed clots. Yet the government is stopping distribution of a vaccine that is proven to protect against covid hospitalizations out of concern over blood clots?

Withholding the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will not only kill people who want to get immunized but can't; it will also kill people by causing more vaccine hesitancy. A Economist/YouGov poll shows that since the pause took effect, the number of Americans who believe the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is safe has dropped from 52% to just 37%. This will prove deadly when demand is met among those who are eager to be vaccinated, and the government's job shifts to convincing hesitant Americans to take them.

We will never know precisely how many Americans died because of the decision to halt the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, or who they were. But their lives matter, and should factor into the government's decision-making. They don't because, while there are many good people at the FDA and CDC, they face perverse incentives. Former FDA commissioner Alexander M. Schmidt once told Congress, "In all of FDA's history, I am unable to find a single instance where a congressional committee investigated the failure of FDA to approve a new drug. But the times when hearings have been held to criticize our approval of new drugs have been so frequent that we aren't able to count them."

As Joe DiMasi and Christopher-Paul Milne of the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development have explained, "When bad drugs are approved quickly, the FDA is scrutinized and criticized, victims are identified, and their graves are marked. In contrast, when good drugs are approved slowly, the victims are unknown."

With the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, we now see the terrible outcome of these twisted incentives. The FDA approved the vaccine faster than usual for emergency use because of the pressures of the pandemic. But now public health officials are pulling it back because of eight complications out of 7.4 million doses and a single death -- even though many more people will likely die from the decision to withhold it.

- - -

Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.

The D.C. statehood pretense

By george f. will
The D.C. statehood pretense

GEORGE F. WILL COLUMN

Advance for release Thursday, April 22, 2021, and thereafter

(For Will clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By George F. Will

WASHINGTON - The Democratic-controlled Congress will soon try to transform part of the District of Columbia, which today is about one-eighteenth the size of Rhode Island but 18.9% larger than Denver International Airport, into a state. This will involve theatrical and constitutional difficulties.

The Democrats' theatrical challenge will be to keep straight faces while insisting that their motivation is altruistic: indignation about D.C. residents paying federal taxes without being fully represented in Congress. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan came within 3,761 Minnesota votes of carrying all 50 states, but won less than 14% of Washington D.C. votes. In 2020, Donald Trump won 5.4% of the D.C. vote. San Francisco will never vote Republican but will do so before D.C. does. Democrats insist, however, that this is irrelevant to them: Their interest is the inviolable principle "no taxation without representation."

It became inviolable recently. After 2009, when Democrats controlled Congress and the presidency, they did not act on D.C. statehood. Then, however, Democrats had 57 senators. Today, they have only 50. Does (BEG ITAL)anyone(END ITAL) believe that if D.C. were as incorrigibly Republican as it is Democratic, Democrats would favor D.C. statehood, which would mean two more Republican senators until the last trumpet shall sound?

There is, however, a constitutional impediment to D.C. statehood-by-statute. Paradoxically, the impediment was created to enlarge D.C.'s political rights and importance.

The Constitution's Framers mandated creation of a seat of the federal government "not exceeding ten miles square" over which Congress would "exercise exclusive legislation." This was done with 63 square miles from Maryland and 37 square miles from Virginia, which got its land back in 1847. In 1961, ratification of the 23rd Amendment -- the impediment -- gave District residents the right to dispose presidential electoral votes no more numerous than those of "the least populous state."

Historian John Steele Gordon,writing in City Journal, notes that in 1978 Congress sent to the states for ratification a constitutional amendment that would have treated the District as a state in federal elections, meaning it would have two senators and at least one House member. The amendment fell 22 states short of the 38 required for ratification.

A 2019 Gallup poll showed a national majority opposed to D.C. statehood. Many more than 13 states will probably always oppose D.C. statehood -- for partisan reasons, or because they think D.C. as a state is facially implausible, or because they oppose the dilution of their senators' powers (by becoming two of 102 rather than of 100). So, congressional Democrats now propose legislatively reducing D.C. to a tiny enclave around the National Mall, and declaring the rest of the District a state.

But what about the 23rd Amendment? Because 38 states will not vote to repeal it in order confer statehood on D.C., Democrats propose an almost inscrutable process to (BEG ITAL)legislatively(END ITAL) transfer to the new "state" the electoral votes (BEG ITAL)constitutionally(END ITAL) given to the District, which would be reduced to the mini enclave whose few hundred residents would vote in their "state of most recent domicile." If you are confused, you understand.

But as the Cato Institute's Roger Pilon has patiently explained to Congress, (BEG ITAL)what was done by constitutional amendment cannot be undone by legislation.(END ITAL) In 1961, a Democratic-controlled Congress understood that a constitutional amendment was necessary to give D.C. presidential electoral votes. In 1978, a Democratic-controlled Congress understood that an amendment was necessary to enlarge D.C.'s representation. But in 2021, a Democratic-controlled Congress is resorting to a convoluted process to vitiate the Founders' intent and evade constitutional due process. What, Pilon asks, has changed?

Democrats have. Their devotion to constitutional propriety expired three months ago, at noon, Jan. 20.

Historian Gordon proposes a constitutional amendment that would confound Democrats by giving them what they say they want. It would repeal the 23rd Amendment and say: "For purposes of participating in federal elections only, the citizens of the seat of government of the United States shall be regarded and counted as being citizens of the state that ceded the land to the Government of the United States."

D.C. residents would vote in Maryland presidential, U.S. Senate and U.S. House elections. Maryland, by acquiring approximately 700,000 citizens-for-voting-purposes, would gain an electoral vote. D.C. residents, transformed into Maryland voters, would cheerfully pay their federal taxes because they would vote for 2% of U.S. senators and 1/435th of the House membership. And Democrats' primary interest -- their altruist dedication to the inviolable principal of no taxation without representation -- would be affirmed, so they would be serene. Right? Of course not.

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George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

Ponzi king's death is a reminder that his con-artist tricks live on

By michelle singletary
Ponzi king's death is a reminder that his con-artist tricks live on

MICHELLE SINGLETARY COLUMN

Advance for release Wednesday, April 21, 2021, and thereafter

(For Singletary clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Michelle Singletary

WASHINGTON -- Criminal mastermind Bernie Madoff is dead, but plenty of con artists around the world are still thriving - and eager to steal your money.

It's been nearly 14 years since I wrote about a different scheme run by another charismatic huckster. In that case, unlicensed mortgage brokers were pushing homeowners into the type of high-priced, predatory mortgages that led to the housing crash and ultimately created the Great Recession.

The mortgage promoter has remained in business, evading regulators by frequently changing the name of the company and moving his operation from state to state. Every so often I get an email from someone wanting to know whether it's safe to trust the guy.

Many do exactly what they should do. They search for information and inevitably come across one of my columns. They email me wanting to know more. So I send them additional columns that I wrote about the mortgage scheme.

Despite a history of cease-and-desist orders from various states, some of these folks still weren't persuaded to avoid business dealings with a person who has a proven track record of deception.

"I want to believe that this company is a legitimate financial services firm that's looking to expand," one woman emailed in 2018. "Everything in me is saying 'Run Forrest, run.'"

Eventually -- after several warnings from me -- she did run. Others don't want to believe the reporting, so I give up.

But the scammers don't give up. Because, the truth is, they know people want to believe what we natural skeptics instantly see as unbelievable.

Last week, Madoff died at 82 -- 12 years into serving a 150-year prison term for bilking investors out of about $20 billion. In 2008, Madoff admitted to perpetrating a massive Ponzi scheme in which he used money from some of his investors to make payouts to others.

Madoff had been a prominent member of the securities industry and the chairman of Nasdaq. His victims included inexperienced investors as well as the rich and famous -- director Steven Spielberg, actor Kevin Bacon and Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel.

In my experience, investment-fraud victims generally fall into three categories. Many people are so strapped financially that skepticism doesn't seem like an affordable option. Others trust recommendations from people they know and skip doing any due diligence of their own. And some people, out of greed, simply ignore repeated warnings that "if it's too good to be true, it probably is."

Madoff's death is an opportunity to remind us all that the tricks he used still live on and continue to ensnare investors in other scams.

(BEG ITAL)Don't trust. Always verify.(END ITAL) Ronald Reagan said when negotiating with the Soviets, "Trust, but verify." But when it comes to investing, be skeptical from the start. I don't care if your mama, papa or pastor recommends a financial opportunity -- always check it out. If someone says they are licensed independently, verify whether it's true.

(BEG ITAL)Beware of top-earning recruiters.(END ITAL) One of the things scammers have going for them is the ability to get others to help them fish for prey. Scammers use people who profited early to spread the word, making the venture appear legitimate. This is common in pyramid schemes, such as illegal "sou-sous," which I've written about. Recruiters -- some of whom are unaware that they are participating in a scam -- share testimonies about their earnings. In doing so, they hook other victims.

The bait is the financial success of these co-conspirators, or the innocent fishermen and women. That's what happened with Madoff. Early investors seemingly made lots of money, although we now know they were being paid by the funds that new investors were giving Madoff. Based on the recommendations from these folks, other investors were lured into the Ponzi scheme.

(BEG ITAL)If you don't understand how the money is being invested, run.(END ITAL) You need to understand how your investments will generate a return. Many Madoff victims admitted that they had no clue how their money was being invested. They couldn't explain how he achieved year-after-year double-digit returns. And when Madoff was pressed, he often wouldn't explain his investing strategy.

"There was a myth he created around him, that everything was so special, so unique that it had to be secret," Wiesel, who died in 2016, said during a panel discussion about Madoff's scheme. At the time, Wiesel said he lost his life savings and $15 million for the foundation he founded.

(BEG ITAL)If you're discouraged from asking too many questions, you're about to be scammed.(END ITAL) Madoff would get agitated when pressed for details about his extraordinary investing strategy.

Once when I was peppering a promoter with questions, I was told I had to pay a $100 membership fee to get more answers.

"Membership has its privileges," the business promoter angrily quipped. The promoter then asked me who had invited me to the meeting.

"My friend," I said.

"Would your friend introduce you to anything that is crazy?" she asked.

Yes, your friend may unwittingly introduce you to a scam or scammer. If you are made to feel like a troublemaker because you're asking a lot of questions, that is a sign to get out - fast.

Madoff was -- before his downfall -- an investment legend. But we now know the only legendary thing he did was use the same old ploys that have long worked for con artists.

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Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary). Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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