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Unrest in Minnesota town offers warning to other U.S. suburbs, experts say

By Tim Craig and Silvia Foster-Frau
Unrest in Minnesota town offers warning to other U.S. suburbs, experts say
Pedestrians walk past the Brooklyn Center, Minn., water tower. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Joshua Lott

BROOKLYN CENTER, Minn - When William Adams moved to this area a few years ago, he joined thousands of Minneapolis residents in transforming Brooklyn Center from the mostly White suburb it once was into one where people of color account for more than half the population.

But as he tried to settle into the community, Adams, who is Black, was always reminded of how Brooklyn Center police used to harass him in the early 1970s when he came to visit his girlfriend, who was White.

"They would see something hanging in the window, or a light out on my car and pull me over just to deter me from being there," said Adams, 67.

Today, Adams says not enough has changed within the Brooklyn Center Police Department. And with tensions having already been on the rise between the community and police before an officer shot and killed an unarmed Black man this week, Adams has decided to look for a new house even farther north of Minneapolis.

"I told my agent I now want to be 35 to 45 miles outside of the city," said Adams, a heavy equipment operator. "All the problems keep coming more and more up this way. That is why we are trying to get out."

Adams's decision to move reflects what demographers and sociologists say is the growing ethnic and economic diversity that continues to sweep into America's suburbs, making those communities the new front line in the nation's culture clashes over racism and policing.

As immigrants and people of color move deeper into the suburbs, increasingly shattering historical stereotypes of White, picket-fence communities, they are redefining politics and contributing to a rise in non-White officeholders. But even as the political leadership of suburban governments becomes more diverse, scholars say the police forces and other local government institutions often lag, creating new flash points for tension among residents.

In just the past few years, the nation has watched as controversial police shootings in Ferguson Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, and Kenosha, Wis., an outer suburb of Chicago, led to widespread civil unrest. The disturbances raised questions about whether police departments and local governments were responsive to their increasingly diverse citizens and if those residents could expect equal justice.

Now, Brooklyn Center, about 10 miles from downtown Minneapolis, is at the center of that debate with the death of 20-year-old Daunte Wright, who was shot and killed during a traffic stop by a police officer who thought she was holding a Taser, not her service weapon.

Last year, during the riots that engulfed Minneapolis following the death of George Floyd, Brooklyn Center remained largely peaceful even though the downtown skyline is visible from parts of the community.

But now, after several consecutive days of protests and looting, an air of crisis and big-city drama has gripped Brooklyn Center and its 30,000 residents.

Minnesota National Guard troops and sheriff's deputies in combat gear and with armored vehicles protect the Brooklyn Center police headquarters from protesters who slap at the gate demanding justice for Wright. Most local businesses are boarded up, creating shortages of gas and staples. And this week, the City Council fired the city manager and the police chief resigned, sparking a leadership crisis.

"This has truly been a tragic and difficult week for the people of Brooklyn Center," Mayor Mike Elliott said Wednesday, issuing a call for the community to remain calm. "Now the eyes of the world are watching Brooklyn Center."

Myron Orfield Jr., a law professor and director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School, said he has been warning for years that a growing number of the nation's suburbs were "tinderboxes" because of growing inequality, bad policing and the slow disintegration of the country's Fair Housing laws. He noted Chicago, D.C. and Atlanta in particular and fears it's only a matter of time before unrest could also erupt in those cities' suburbs.

"You've got communities that are deeply segregated, and have growing problems with crime, and you've got people who are afraid of rapid change," Orfield said. "And you've got police officers who were hired 20 years ago when the community was a White community and you have this huge change, and when you send White police officers into predominantly segregated neighborhoods, they do bad things."

Earlier this week, Orfield published a report that documented Brooklyn Center's rapidly changing demographics. He noted that Brooklyn Center had become a hub of concentrated poverty and job losses, a trend that shows no sign of slowing as the supply of affordable housing continues to dwindle. The town has experienced the "fastest demographic transition" in the metropolitan region, he said.

As recently as 1990, 9 out of 10 residents in Brooklyn Center were White, Orfield said. Today, 38% of the city's residents are White, 29% are Black, 16% are Asian, and 13% are Hispanic. Its residents are a combination of newly arrived immigrants and refugees and people of color whose families have lived in America for generations. West Africans dominate the immigrant population, residents say, largely Liberians, as well as Kenyans and Nigerians. The Hmong community has a strong presence as well, with a small group of Laotian immigrants.

Meanwhile, Whites and more affluent Black residents are fleeing to outer-suburban communities, deepening poverty in close-in suburbs such as Brooklyn Center, Orfield said.

Even as the Twin Cities metropolitan area grows wealthier, median incomes in Brooklyn Center have fallen from $64,993 in 2000, in inflation-adjusted dollars, to $54,786 in 2018. The poverty rate has also more than doubled to 15% over the past two decades, Orfield noted, comparing Brooklyn Center to the poor urban neighborhoods of the 20th century. The median income in Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, is $78,167, according to census data.

Leaders with local nonprofit organizations stressed that it will take time for the recent hard-fought political power gained by non-White Brooklyn Center residents to translate into lasting policies to combat poverty and systemic racism. The job is even more challenging, they said, because the small city is often left out of county and state funding and programming, leaving it to fend for itself.

Residents, many of whom live in one- or two-story mid-century homes or aging apartment complexes, say there are few grocery stores or places to shop or dine.

There is no downtown or central plaza, and businesses struggle to flourish. Target came and left. So did Michaels. Even the main mall, Brookdale Center, closed in 2010, leaving a Walmart as the commercial focal point for the community.

"It's a diverse and global community, but at the same time Brooklyn Center doesn't have a lot of resources," said Ekta Prakash, chief executive of the local immigrant services nonprofit CAPI. "It's one of the places that has been left out."

Still, as more people of color arrive in Brooklyn Center, these groups have begun to gain representation on elected boards, and advocates believe the town could serve as a model for building up the middle class.

Elliott, 37, who was elected in 2018, is Brooklyn Center's first Black and first Liberian American mayor. Three of five City Council members are also people of color. And their local state representative is a 27-year-old Hmong American, Samantha Vang.

Nelima Sitati Munene, executive director of the nonprofit African Career, Education and Resource (ACER), said the growing ranks of diverse leaders followed a "significant mobilization" to get voters more engaged in local governance.

"The community made an effort to say, 'It's not enough to be majority people of color, how are we being represented in the decision-making process?'" Munene said.

And there have been some examples of how this new leadership is changing the city. In recent months, both the City Council and school board have taken steps to distance the city from one of its founders, Earle Brown.

Brown was a former county sheriff who allegedly had ties to the Ku Klux Klan. In February, the City Council voted to change the name of the town's community festival, Earle Brown Days, while an elementary school that was named after Brown changed its name last year.

But because of the relative newness of officials of color, Munene said other "systematic injustices" in Brooklyn Center will be harder to uproot, including poverty and a lack of diversity in institutions such as the police department.

Not a single officer in the 49-member police force lives in Brooklyn Center, the mayor said at a news conference Tuesday. He also said only a "very low" number of the officers are Black. Elliott's office did not respond to interview requests.

Meanwhile, overly aggressive police tactics, including stopping motorists for relatively minor traffic infractions, have been a source of complaints for years, residents said.

Rebecca Headbird, a 40-year-old Native American, was born in Brooklyn Center and has been raising her mixed-race family here. Even before Wright's death, Headbird said she had lost faith that the Brooklyn Center Police Department could be trusted to be fair to her family.

She said Brooklyn Center police officers have pulled over both her and other family members for having a feather "dream catcher" - a traditional Native American good-luck charm - dangling from her rearview mirror.

"A lot of White people at least try to understand where we are coming from, but I feel like the police, they don't want to," Headbird said. "They just want to continue doing what they have been doing, even though things have to change."

Alfreda Daniels Juasemai, 29, moved to Brooklyn Center in 2017, about a decade after her family immigrated to the United States from Liberia.

Juasemai said she was drawn to Brooklyn Center's diversity, and thought she would feel secure being around fellow immigrants from her native country. But she said she quickly discovered Brooklyn Center wasn't as welcoming as she had expected.

Juasemai, who unsuccessfully ran for City Council last year, said it was common for some residents to call the police on her when she showed up at their doors to campaign. She said Liberians are also "harassed" by neighbors and police who complain about music during summer barbecues, which are customary events in Liberian culture.

"We thought by living in a majority-POC community that is very diverse, we were going to be shielded from this crisis of deep racism," she said. "But we shortly realized that after moving, that that's not the case."

According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Brooklyn Center police officers have shot and killed six people since 2012. All but one were people of color, including four Black victims, the newspaper reported.

Jeffrey Storm, a veteran Minnesota lawyer who is representing Wright's family, said for too long Brooklyn Center police officers "have looked at the citizens of the city as people to be controlled rather than people to be served."

Storm said it was especially insensitive that even after Wright was shot, Brooklyn Center police kept a "thin blue line" flag hanging on the station flagpole. Many people of color consider the flag to be disrespectful to the families of those who have been killed by police.

"I think we need a complete top-to-bottom state audit," Storm said. "We need to figure out if we are doing the best job we can in training officers."

A Brooklyn Center police spokesman did not return calls seeking comment on the department's relationship with the community. Some residents say they still support the department, and they worry that this week's unrest will only further divide the community.

The police "are fair at least, and they don't come in aggressive at people like you see in North Minneapolis," said Derek Dreitzler, 30, who is White.

Dreitzler, who lives two blocks from a Family Dollar store that protesters looted and set fire to Monday night, said Black Lives Matter demonstrators are driving away Brooklyn Center residents who once supported their cause.

"If you are trying to get to a store and you need to pick up groceries, but everything is closing at 7 p.m., it's going to upset people," Dreitzler said about the curfew that was imposed because of protests after Wright's death. "And if you are driving your car, and suddenly [protesters] are surrounding your car, it makes a lot of people on edge and ready to get violent themselves."

Orfield, from the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, noted the rapid changes in some suburbs were evident last summer when suburban leaders were surprised so many racial justice protests took place far away from traditional city centers.

"The wealth is being stripped out of these places at the speed of light, and because the change is happening so fast, there is a huge unspoken tension about it, and a fear about it," said Orfield, who believes the government should focus more on providing a range of affordable housing options in all types of communities, including bolstering the Fair Housing Act. "These older suburbs, once they become poor, they don't bounce back as quickly as larger cities."

But Vang, the Hmong American state representative, said communities such as Brooklyn Center are still "the future face of America."

"Brooklyn Center has an opportunity to show the world . . . America, and the state, what we can be when we invest in communities of color," she said.

The non-White community here is not monolithic, she said, with each group having its own culture and expectations. Changing the government so it can benefit them all is no small feat.

But "despite all these differences in the little suburban city of Brooklyn Center, we still choose to live together," she said. "In these past couple days, the community is hurting. We feel the sense of hopelessness and pain, but we still choose the alternative. We still choose hope."

- - -

The Washington Post's Kim Bellware and Jared Goyette contributed to this report.

Native American women are reclaiming their language

By Megan Botel
Native American women are reclaiming their language
Quirina Geary and her daughter Niyatsatha Geary pose at their home in Clearlake Oaks, Calif., on Tuesday, April 13, 2021. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Rachel Bujalski

In 1980, when fourth-grader Quirina Geary's class learned about Spanish missions and the Native American tribes they conquered, she proudly announced that her family was part of the Mutsun tribe, which lived for thousands of years in what is nowCentral California.

But when her classmates asked her to speak in her native tongue, she froze. Despite growing up with many Indigenous traditions - she foraged for mushrooms and gathered acorns, her father fed the family with hunted deer, they lived intergenerationally and with extended family - she did not know a single Mutsun word.

"I felt less Indian that day," Geary, now 49, recalled. "There is something about language that is so deeply rooted in identity. It's how you see the world, and how the world sees you."

The linguist Kenneth Hale famously said, "The loss of a language represents the loss of a rare window on the human mind." A study published by Northern Arizona University found that language loss can destroy a sense of self-worth and identity. Language death does not happen in privileged communities, as scholar James Crawford wrote in the 1990s.

More than a dozen generations have died since Spanish and other European settlers arrived on the continent, and Native American tribal languages have become endangered. In a bid for assimilation and control, colonists barred many traditional practices and forced tribal children into boarding schools, mostly run by Christian missionaries who separated families from children, stripped them of their traditional clothing and hairstyles, taught them English, and punished them for speaking their native languages. Many children died, and physical and sexual abuse was pervasive.

Now, nearly 150 years later, native languages are spoken by a scant number of tribal elders, if at all, and they are generally not taught to children. Half the nation's native tribal languages are extinct, and linguists estimate that up to 90 percent of Indigenous languages worldwide will die out by the end of the century.

In a quest to reclaim their cultural identity, some tribes seek to revive or relearn their native languages, which has been associated with increased physical and community health. This is particularly important for Native Americans, who have some of the worst health of any racial group in the nation and have been hit particularly hard by the novel coronavirus, advocates say. A City University of New York study found that Indigenous language maintenance leads to lower rates of diabetes, smoking and suicide.

And for some who grew up traditionally Native American but unable to speak the language, such as Geary, language revival is a matter of reclaiming a part of their identity.

"Someone else's ancestors came along and took away their language forcibly, took away their rights and maybe committed genocide against them," said Natasha Warner, a linguist working on Mutsun language revival at the University of Arizona. "The descendants come along and say, 'I want to get my heritage back, I want to get my people's culture back.' Language is a big route into that."

Since that grade-school moment, Geary has dedicated her life to reclaiming her "Indianness," as she called it. Shortly after graduating from high school, Geary went to her family's ancestral land in what is now San Benito County, Calif., about 80 miles south of San Francisco, seeking to learn the Mutsun language from native speakers.

But she could not find native Mutsun speakers there. In fact, no one seemed to know that her tribe still existed.

"People would say: 'Oh, they're all dead. They're all extinct,' " Geary recalled. "This was obviously not the case. There were hundreds of us throughout California."

In the mid-'90s, Geary attended the Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous California Languages at the University of California at Berkeley, a week-long intensive language workshop for Native American people with little or no fluent speakers of their languages. There, she met Warner, who was a linguistics grad student. The two continue to work closely together to revive the Mutsun language.

"Reviving a language with no native speakers is incredibly hard," said Warner, who describes herself as an "outside linguist" because she is working on language revival but is not Native American herself. "But this is the most rewarding work that I do. Actually helping people in their daily lives to find a greater sense of identity is quite meaningful."

"We both always wanted to make sure Indian people were at the forefront, which meant so much to me," Geary said. "This way, we as Indian people are in control of what goes on."

Geary is part of a legacy of Indigenous women who have preserved language and traditional cultural practices throughout history. Seen as the keepers of cultural knowledge, women are also the primary transmitters of this information to younger generations.

For example, Geary's great-great-great-grandmother Josefa Velásquez worked with linguists to maintain the Mutsun language before she died in 1922. The last first-language speaker of the Mutsun tribe, Ascención Solórsano, shared her language knowledge with researchers at the University of California at Berkeley throughout the early 1900s. In the year that preceded her death in 1930, she helped a linguist archive her knowledge of language, traditional medicine and culture.

"She worked to share the Mutsun language until her final breath," Geary said. "Without that, we wouldn't have anything."

And Native American women nationwide carry forth this work today. Crystal Richardson, a third-generation language-revitalization worker from the Karuk tribe of Northern California, has documented more than 500 hours of master-speaker recordings since she began working on the language in 2004. Her aunt, Nancy Steele, co-created the Master-Apprentice Language Learning Program, based on the book "How to Keep Your Language Alive," which Steele co-authored in 2001. Richardson enrolled in the program when she was 19. Now, Richardson is a master-apprentice trainer and is developing a virtual youth conference to recruit and support young language reclaimers.

"Indigenous women will make resources appear," said Richardson, who organized an Indigenous women symposium when she was an undergraduate student at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. "We are the stewards of not just the land and the culture but also the children."

Richardson is also focused on creating "baby native Karuk speakers" and promotes speaking only Karuk with children until a certain age - as she has done with her sister's children who are 2, 5 and 9.

"Cultural information is like a beacon of light," Richardson said. "I try to teach in a good way, because I know it's going to be passed forward tenfold."

Beyond the benefits of personal identity and community and physical health, reviving languages is also critical for maintaining linguistic diversity, which adds to the psychological health of society at large, linguists say.

"Preserving those distinctive or unusual ways of receiving the world is important for all the reasons that diversity is important," said Andrew Garrett, chair of the linguistics department at U.C. Berkeley and the director of Survey of California and Other Indian Languages, an archive and research center for Indigenous languages. "All the languages are associated with a rich set of stories and narratives."

Geary emphasizes the ways her tribe's values can be understood through intricacies in the language. In Mutsun, to say "thank you," one would say, "Suururuy ritoksitkawas," which transliterates to "Blessings from the village I am of."

"Notice, the phrase is not the village I am from," Geary said. "The village, the land, the people - there is no separation. Clues like this show you how connected people are to the lands."

There is also no gender in Mutsun. Whether you are talking to a male, a female or a rock, Geary said, you use the same pronoun: "The language shows you we value everything equally."

But unlike the Karuk tribe, Mutsun is not federally recognized - which is indicative of a broader, century-old battle between Native American tribes and the U.S. government. This means the tribe would not be eligible for any government funding to assist with language learning and revitalization.

"The way the guidelines are for federal recognition, we wouldn't qualify," Geary said. "What's the difference, why aren't we recognized? The bottom line is because our land is worth too much, we lived on the coast, they would rather ignore us than anything else."

Even with these barriers and persistent tensions between tribes and government agencies, Geary and Warner made strides in the past 26 years. In 2016, the pair developed a comprehensive Mutsun-English dictionary, available online and in print at no cost to Mutsun people.

"That's enough for the kids to have the identity of, 'This is who I am,' " Warner said. "Mutsun people that I've worked with say it's extremely, deeply moving to connect to their heritage and connect to their ancestors who went through this terrible, horrible history."

Warner and other linguists once considered the Mutsun language to be "dormant," meaning there are no proficient speakers. But with all of this work and the increased availability of the language to the Mutsun people, she now calls it "awakening."

"There are elders just speaking the language for the first time now in their 70s, you see their faces light up," Geary said through tears. "It's something that's needed. I can't say that it's altruistic, because it makes me feel good. It's my passion."

While Geary is on a lifelong mission to fully reclaim the Mutsun language for her tribe, she embraces a greater vision for her people: to speak together and live on one, continuous land base in their territory where San Benito County is now, where her ancestors thrived for thousands of years.

"A land to speak together, to dream together, to have that social interaction," she mused. "We need that. We need the ability to have sovereignty, and live as Indian people. A place to call home."

Off the grid: A flood of federal aid often fails to reach America's poorest families

By Greg Jaffe
Off the grid: A flood of federal aid often fails to reach America's poorest families
Shawna hopes to find her stimulus check in the mail. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Ricky Carioti

PEORIA, Ill. - In early March, with the weather warming and her day of reckoning with the power company fast approaching, Shawna Brewer slid her bill from the envelope and tried not to cry. She owed $4,242.44.

It was the beginning of another month for Shawna, 38, in which her main goal was survival.

Like millions of Americans, she was not just poor, she was poor in ways that often rendered her unaccounted for by many of the government aid programs and charitable groups that could offer help. Her blighted Zip code had become the sort of place where hundreds of families could lose their electricity; few would complain and no one in a position of power or influence would even notice.

Illinois law prohibited winter cutoffs for nonpayment, but Shawna knew that the disconnections would start again soon, and she knew that she would likely be at the top of the power company's list. "I've got a $4,000 light bill that I have no flipping idea how I'm going to pay," she said. "As soon as it gets warm, we're going to get shut off."

Today, the federal government is in the midst of one of the biggest expansions of the social safety net in U.S. history, committing $5 trillion over the last year to keeping American families afloat. President Biden predicted the flood of aid could cut child poverty in half.

And yet for all its successes, the trillions in aid have often failed to reach the poorest Americans in places like the south end of Peoria. Because many in Shawna's neighborhood have jobs that paid them in cash and because they didn't report their income to the government, they were unable to qualify for unemployment insurance. Because they moved frequently, failed to file taxes or owed fines for back child support or past criminal activity, they often didn't receive their full stimulus checks.

As the pandemic dragged on month after month, hundreds struggled simply to keep the lights on. Last fall, 5.4 percent of all residences in Shawna's 61605 Zip code - about 300 houses - were cut off for failing to pay their power bill. Another 250 houses in a neighboring Zip code - or about 4 percent of all residences - also lost power.

The disconnections, which were reported to the state government by private utilities, should have been a flashing red light that the social safety net was missing Peoria's poorest.

And yet the cutoffs throughout Peoria's south end went largely unnoticed. Local charities with money to help with power bills reported no surge in requests for assistance. City officials speculated that the disconnection statistics must be wrong. "They don't seem real," said Ross Black, Peoria's community development director. "We get calls any time someone loses power. . . . Our phones would have been ringing off the hook."

One of those unseen people who lost power last fall was Shawna. After four or five days without electricity or gas, she said she switched the bill to her fiance's name, leading the power company to believe that she, her 11-year-old son and her fiance were new tenants. Her power was still on when the state's winter moratorium on disconnections kicked in on Nov. 18.

Now it was spring. Shawna couldn't remember how much she and Theo Friedrich, her fiance, owed when the power went off; she guessed it was about $2,000. She knew they hadn't made a payment since October. Still, the $4,242.44 they owed seemed unfathomably large - especially when set against her $300 a week salary washing dishes at a nearby diner.

She and Theo sat together at their dining room table and tried to figure out what had happened.

"They are trying to raise up prices to compensate for their losses during the pandemic," Theo said. A roach scampered across the dining room table and Shawna flicked it away.

"Ain't we on some kind of payment plan with them?" she asked.

But Theo ignored her. He was too immersed in the bill. "Distribution delivery charge, customer charge, qualifying infrastructure plant surcharge," he read.

"They hate it when you call and question them," Shawna said. "They just hang up on you."

Overwhelmed by the decay that afflicted Peoria's south end, government officials often struggled to see the suffering or dreams of people living there. Residents assumed that their problems were a low priority or a product of their own failings and didn't seek help even when it was available.

The dynamic rendered them essentially invisible.

The cutoffs, however, did catch the eye of Steve Cicala, an economist at Tufts University, who was searching for a real-time indicator of how the poorest families in America were weathering the pandemic recession. Cicala knew that the recession's pain wasn't being shared equally. Wealthier Americans who could work from home and owned stocks were getting richer. Even many poorer Americans saw their savings grow last year thanks to generous unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, according to banking and credit card data.

Cicala knew such financial data often missed the country's most impoverished citizens who don't have credit cards or bank accounts. Electricity captured everyone.

"If you want to know where the holes in the safety net are - if people are falling through the cracks and being pushed to the limits of poverty - [electricity] data are more valuable," Cicala said. In Illinois, the state regulatory commission required utilities to report monthly numbers on arrearages, late fees and disconnections for every Zip code, making it a perfect test case.

Cicala was stunned at what he found. Close to 1 percent of all residences in Illinois were cut off for nonpayment in October 2020. "That 1 percent comes from a whole bunch of zeros, and a really severe shock in concentrated areas," Cicala said. "There are some places where the pain is really extraordinary."

Before resuming disconnections, the Illinois Commerce Commission had struck a deal with the power companies that was supposed to protect the most vulnerable customers from disconnection. Those who had lost income because of the pandemic simply had to call the power company and ask for more time to pay their bill. "No written proof is necessary, but you must make the phone call," the commission wrote in a news release.

Still, about 72,000 families in Illinois, including Shawna's, lost power last fall. Some said they didn't call because they didn't believe that the electricity company would give them more time. Others called but didn't say the right words or were connected to customer service representatives who didn't understand the new policy.

Customers in majority Black and Hispanic Zip codes were about four times more likely to be disconnected for nonpayment, according to Cicala. "These results highlight that people who were already in poverty are suffering tremendously," Cicala said.

They also suggest a broader problem. "The regulator's goal was zero disconnections. The local safety net [in Peoria] didn't register a crisis," he continued. "That would suggest that our social safety net is in grave need of repair."

Cicala was working temporarily in Zurich and teaching remotely when he published his research. He'd never actually been to Peoria. His paper - "The Incidence of Extreme Economic Stress: Evidence from Utility Disconnections" - offered one view of the recession.

Life on the south end of Peoria provided a more visceral and human view. Shawna was drinking her morning coffee last fall before work when the power company came for her. She spotted the white truck through her glass storm door. By the time she reached the front yard, one of the power company workers was climbing the wood pole on her corner, across the street from a house that had been boarded up for at least a decade.

"You have some f---ing nerve shutting us off during a pandemic!" she screamed.

Inside, Seth was playing video games. "Why are they turning off the power?" he asked Theo, who Seth had come to think of as his father.

"Because we don't have the money to pay the bill," Seth remembered him saying.

Soon Shawna's neighbors were gathering and asking if she was going to be okay. "Another day in the life of Shawna Brewer," she recalled thinking.

The same scene was playing out all across the south end. A cabdriver returned from her 12-hour overnight shift to find that there was no electricity. She owned $535.17. An out-of-work truck driver woke up and noticed that his bathroom light was off. "That's weird," he recalled thinking. "I know I left it on." It took him three weeks to raise the $513 he needed to get his power back.

Some turned to neighborhood Facebook groups for assistance. "REACHING OUT FOR HELP! IT IS URGENT!" a 40-year-old former nurse who was rebuilding her life after opioid addiction and a divorce wrote on a community page. She owed $1,038 and had tried unsuccessfully to apply for federal low-income heating assistance aid. "Since I do not have my 14-month-old's social security card they cannot help me," she continued. "I can afford a hotel room for tonight, but that's it. Please please please! Any resources would be greatly appreciated!" After about a week with no lights, she got help from a local charity.

A few miles away, a laid-off teacher's aide called the power company, which wanted a partial payment of at least $170 to restore services to his house. "Lady, you're not listening," he recalled telling the power company representative. "I do not have any money right now. I can't pay my car note or my rent."

Most of those who were cut off scrambled to get the power back on in a week or two. They opened accounts in a relative's or partner's name, like Shawna, or borrowed from friends or family. A few received funds from aid programs.

Others tried to ride out the outages in the cold and the dark. Deion Lutz, 24, a cook earning $10 an hour, made it until January. "I'd cuddle up with my dogs under three blankets," he said. Then the temperatures plunged below zero and Lutz, worried that he might freeze to death, moved into his sister's basement. "It was kind of embarrassing," he said. "I was down on my ass and I've never been that way before." Shortly after he left, someone broke out the front windows and ransacked his home. Today, the floor in the front room is covered with trash, feces and what's left of Lutz's possessions.

"I don't even want my s--- now," Lutz said. "It's beyond disgusting." He's planning to move to Florida. In all likelihood his former home will have to be boarded up. Another little piece of Peoria will die.

The last few months have been difficult for Shawna too. At a time when the government was offering trillions in aid to those struggling through the pandemic recession and billions to those behind on their power bills, Shawna and the federal government often failed to connect.

In November the governor halted indoor dining, and Shawna was furloughed from the restaurant for two months. She didn't qualify for unemployment benefits of as much as $440 a week because her job paid cash and she didn't report her modest income to the federal government. As far as the state and federal government were concerned, she hadn't been working.

Her fiance, who works at a junkyard towing wrecked cars and stripping parts, lost income as well. Stay-at-home orders and shuttered offices had cut into the number of cars on the road, and he said his pay had slipped from about $1,500 a month to as little as $500 a month. He didn't receive most of his stimulus money because he owed back child support on grown children.

The money Shawna and Theo did get went to pay the water bill, which was costing them about $190 a month because of a leak that they couldn't seem to find. They spent another $600-$700 in February to replace their home's broken furnace. The owner let them stay for free in the crumbling two-bedroom house, which had gaping holes in the living room walls, in exchange for a promise that they would help fix it up.

The hardest blow for Shawna came this winter when a gunfight broke out on Shawna's block and someone fired three bullets that lodged into her home's siding.

Seth was playing inside just feet from where the bullets struck the house's facade. He took a painting of a snow-covered mountain cabin that he had fished from the garbage and hung it over the spot in the interior wall where police had dug to dislodge one of the rounds. Two weeks later he moved in with his 20-year-old sister, 10 miles away in Pekin, telling his mother that he was too afraid to stay in the house. Losing her son left her depressed and made it hard to sleep or think about anything else. "I just can't look forward to the future right now because my son isn't living with me," Shawna said.

About a week after she opened the massive power bill, Shawna was getting ready for her dishwashing job. She was determined to feel better about herself despite another sleepless night, the headache that radiated down the back of her skull, and the fear that she was failing the person who meant the most to her in the world: her 11-year-old son.

So before she headed off to work, she decided to put on some of the makeup that she had bought a few days earlier at the dollar store. She dabbed her cheeks with concealer and drew the eyeliner pencil above her lashes.

"I don't know," she said, exhaling. "I'm not really feeling it."

As they did almost every morning, Shawna and Theo stopped on the way to work to buy cigarettes and lottery scratch-offs, which they played together at the end of the day.

"It's kind of our original thing," she said of the $10-$20 a day habit.

"Maybe one of these days we'll win enough to take a day off," Theo said as he pulled up in front of the restaurant where Shawna had worked since September. She kissed him goodbye and rushed inside.

The Garden Street Cafe traced the history of Peoria and so many other struggling Rust Belt cities. Peoria began as a whiskey town, and the cafe's founder had worked at the Hiram Walker distillery, once the largest in the world, before it closed in 1981. He opened the diner down the street one year later.

In its early days the restaurant drew a steady stream of shoppers from Szold's department store - now the City of Refuge Worship Center - across the street. Bankers in suits and ties came in for lunch. So too did workers from Caterpillar Inc., which was based in Peoria and sold mining and manufacturing equipment worldwide. When the wind was right, the smell of fresh loaves from the Butternut Bread Company, a half-mile away, filled the air.

The Butternut factory closed in 2012, a loss of 130 jobs. Six years later, Caterpillar moved its corporate headquarters to Chicago, complaining that it couldn't lure top-flight executives to Peoria. In the early 1990s, nearly 1 in 4 jobs in Peoria was in manufacturing. Today, it's 1 in 8.

Shawna's father, who worked as a mechanic and in machine shops, battled alcoholism. Her mother found a job at a now-shuttered hot dog stand. One of Shawna's most vivid childhood memories is being evicted from their house when her parents couldn't come up with the rent.

The sheriff deputies left their possessions piled up on the sidewalk. Shawna and her brother moved into a room in her aunt's house, while her parents dragged a mattress into the garage and nailed insulation to the walls to keep out the winter cold. By 13, Shawna had stopped going to school. By 18, she had given birth to two daughters and was struggling with an addiction to methamphetamines.

"My childhood wasn't very nice, but it is what it is," she said.

Today, the 61605 Zip code is among the poorest in the country. The area is home to four liquor stores and zero supermarkets. A Kroger and a Save A Lot both shut down in the last three years, leaving behind only corner stores that sell milk for $4 a gallon, twice the price of a grocery store. The Garden Street Cafe is the only restaurant on the south end - fast food or otherwise - with tables.

For Shawna, landing the six-day-a-week dishwashing job was a bright spot in an otherwise bleak year. Rick Burr, the cafe's owner, recently encouraged Shawna to get her food handling license so she could help with cooking and serving. Shawna took it as an exciting sign. "I think it shows he likes my work," she said.

A television propped on a cardboard box in the restaurant's kitchen was playing daytime talk shows that revolved around promiscuous teens and paternity tests. "That ain't my baby. She's a ho!" someone was screaming on "Maury." Shawna kept one ear on the action as she washed dishes.

Most of the cafe's customers were regulars. "How you doing Kenny?" she asked as she cleared a table. He came in every day for a to-go box of fried shrimp that he washed down with a bucket of five beers at the bar next door.

"Still breathing," Kenny replied.

"Well, that's a good thing," Shawna said.

A woman with a poof of white hair, whom Shawna had known since childhood and referred to as her "aunt," occupied a corner table. Shawna's favorite customers were Delores and her daughter Chris, who had spent 41 years working at Caterpillar before taking early retirement in 2009. Her last job was as a personal assistant to the company's chief operating officer. The women lingered over bowls of oatmeal.

"They talk to you because they want to," Shawna said, "not because you work here."

Shawna had set up informed delivery on her phone, which gave her a daily, digital preview of the letters bound for her mailbox. She checked her account every few hours, hoping for her latest stimulus check, due to arrive any day. At $2,800, the March check was going to be the biggest one yet. A little after noon, she spotted a letter that looked like it was from the federal government.

Around 2:30 p.m. she raced home to check her mailbox. Empty. Either the mail was late or, she worried, someone had stolen her check. "It's like the universe is against me," she groaned.

She spotted a little girl playing in her front yard. "Kai Kai!" she called. "Can you ask your mom if the mail has come yet?" The puzzled girl didn't answer.

"Hey, Frog!" she yelled to a neighbor up the street. But he couldn't hear her over the rap music blaring from his car.

She stopped three girls in matching school uniforms strolling up the sidewalk. One was carrying an envelope. "Letter from school," the girl told her without breaking stride.

When the postal worker finally arrived, Shawna raced to the front door and flung it open, startling him. "Oh, for the love of God!" he exclaimed.

Shawna tore open the letter from the IRS. No check, just blocks of bureaucratic prose: "The U.S. Department of the Treasury issued you a second economic impact payment (EIP2) as provided by the COVID-related Tax Relief Act of 2020."

Shawna had received only half of the $1,200 she was entitled to in January because she had filed her taxes incorrectly. The form letter seemed to be saying that the rest of her money was on its way.

"Wouldn't it be crazy if you got all your checks on the same day?" one of Shawna's co-workers at the cafe asked her. Her $600 check was set to arrive in a matter of days. As part of the American Rescue Plan, she was due the $2,800 stimulus as well as a $250-a-month child tax credit that would start in July and net her about $3,000 over the next 12 months.

The prospect of all that money was enough to spur her dreams.

Sometimes she talked about using the money to pay off $825 in fines so that she could get her driver's license back and land a better job. A Caterpillar subcontractor was paying $12-$15 an hour plus overtime, but the warehouse wasn't on a bus line.

Sometimes she and Theo talked about trying to fix up the house. Black mold climbed the wall in the kitchen where the wallpaper had peeled away. There were holes in the linoleum floor and in the walls in the living room.

More than anything Shawna wanted to bring home her son, who had been living with his 20-year-old sister, Haylee Creamer, since February.

In mid-March, Haylee took him on a week-long trip to visit family in Georgia. Shawna tried to call him at least once a day. "Once we get this stimulus check, what do you think about Mommy and you going back to Georgia to visit?" she asked on one of her calls. "We'll take care of the bills and see what's left."

Then there was the $4,242.44 power bill.

The stimulus package passed in March included $4.5 billion in funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helped with utility bills. But the pandemic, which forced families to navigate the application process online, was making it harder for people to get the aid. When Shawna was cut off last fall, the bill was in her eldest daughter Samantha Creamer's name, further complicating matters.

Even as arrearages and late fees soared in 2020, the number of low-income families in Illinois taking part in the utility assistance program fell to 221,000 households, 30,000 fewer than in 2019, according to state officials. Only about 18 percent of eligible families received the aid in Illinois last year.

Cuts over the last decade to the number of social workers made connecting even harder. A decade ago, the Peoria County Health Administrator received a list each month of households that lost power and could dispatch a case manager to help them apply for assistance. But the health department stopped requesting the monthly list when it eliminated many of its case workers.

The cuts left Shawna largely unknown to the agencies that might have been able to help her.

The pressure also weighed heavily on Shawna's daughter Haylee, who had committed to raising her 11-year-old brother.

Shawna was 18 and struggling with a drug addiction when Haylee, who was raised by her grandparents, was born. In high school, Haylee had posted her grades each semester on her Facebook page and insisted that she was going to attend Harvard University. In 2018, she graduated 10th in her high school class and, instead of Harvard, headed off to community college.

Today she works 12-hour shifts as a certified nursing assistant and was recently accepted into Illinois Central College's nursing school. She and her fiance were determined to raise Seth, who struggled with learning disabilities and had missed stretches of classes during the pandemic.

"Trying to do [online] school with him is a struggle," Haylee said. "It's rough but it's worth it."

Sometimes she, too, felt unseen. She was doing all the right things - going to school, working long hours, paying her bills - but no one was rushing to help her. "I am out here busting my ass at work," she said. "Sometimes, I feel like I'm barely making it. It seems like no one cares when you are doing something."

In late March, Shawna was still waiting for her stimulus check to come in the mail; still hoping she could find a home that would be fit for Seth; still wondering where she and Theo would go if their power was disconnected again.

On a warm spring day, she finished her shift at the restaurant and started walking home past shuttered businesses and recently abandoned homes, satellite TV dishes hanging forlornly off their worn siding. She had been looking online at a small house for sale in Yates City, Ill., even though she knew the $13,000 down payment was well beyond her means.

"Right now, Seth is going to stay at his sister's house until a miracle happens," she said, "because that's what we need."

She pushed open the door to her home. Family pictures hung crooked on walls coated with a brown film from thousands of cigarettes. There were holes in the drywall. Old circuit boards that she and Theo recycled to pick up extra cash littered the floor. The television cast a dim blue glow.

In January, Shawna had used part of her stimulus check to sign up for cable but had to let it go after only a few weeks to pay other bills. She half-jokingly told Theo that she left the TV on hoping that it would motivate him to find some way to restore the service - to provide a flicker of entertainment in their lives. For now, though, there was no picture. No sound. All that remained was a message from the cable company in white, block letters: "Something is not quite right."

- - -

The Washington Post's Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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How Kash Patel rose from obscure Hill staffer to key operative in Trump's battle with the intelligence community

By david ignatius
How Kash Patel rose from obscure Hill staffer to key operative in Trump's battle with the intelligence community


Advance for release Saturday, April 17, 2021, and thereafter

(For Ignatius clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only. WRITETHRU: Swaps in new 17th graf to add first reference for Esper and context

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON - In the Trump administration's four-year battle with the intelligence community, a recurring character was a brash lawyer named Kashyap P. "Kash" Patel. He appeared so frequently, in so many incarnations, that he was almost a "Zelig" figure in President Donald Trump's confrontation against what he imagined as the "deep state."

Patel repeatedly pressed intelligence agencies to release secrets that, in his view, showed that the president was being persecuted unfairly by critics. Ironically, he is now facing Justice Department investigation for possible improper disclosure of classified information, according to two knowledgeable sources who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the probe.

Patel didn't respond to text, email and voice mail messages, or a request to talk at his residence.

Patel, now 41, flew largely beneath the radar during the Trump administration. In the span of four years, he rose from an obscure Hill staffer to become one of the most powerful players in the national security apparatus. The saga of his battles with the intelligence bureaucracy shows how the last administration empowered its lieutenants to challenge what it saw as the deep state.

At the start of the Trump administration, Patel was senior counsel for Rep. Devin Nunes when the California Republican chaired the House Intelligence Committee in 2017 and 2018 and emerged as a leading critic of the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller III into the Trump campaign's alleged links to Russia. Patel then joined Trump's National Security Council staff as senior director for counterterrorism. In 2020, he was a senior adviser to acting director of national intelligence Richard Grenell and his successor, John Ratcliffe, helping lead their efforts to remove senior career intelligence officers.

Patel's most prominent role was his final job, as chief of staff for acting defense secretary Christopher Miller in the administration's last two months. In that position, according to sources close to events, he challenged the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, and very nearly became acting director of the CIA himself.

As with so many other still-mysterious aspects of the Trump presidency, there's a riddle at the center of Patel's many activities. Was there a systematic plan to gain control of the nation's intelligence and military command centers as part of Trump's effort to retain the presidency, despite his loss in the November 2020 election? Or was this a more capricious campaign without a clear strategy?

Patel's story is an unlikely version of the American immigrants' dream. He was born in 1980 in Long Island's Garden City and attended public schools there. His family's roots are in Gujarat, India, by way of East Africa. After a stint as a public defender in Miami, he moved to the Justice Department in 2014, where he worked on national security cases. His Pentagon biography describes him as a "life-long ice hockey player, coach and fan."

Patel moved from the Nunes's staff to the NSC staff. At the White House, he was increasingly drawn into Trump's battle against an intelligence community that the president had come to regard as an enemy.

The assault on the intelligence community escalated when Dan Coats retired as director of national intelligence in August 2019, after disagreeing with Trump about Russian election interference and other subjects. Trump chose as acting head Joseph Maguire, a former head of the National Counterterrorism Center. But Maguire was sacked in February 2020 after one of his deputies briefed Congress on Russian election interference - drawing Trump's wrath.

Patel arrived at the DNI's headquarters on Feb. 20 with Grenell, but employees there say it was Patel, as a top adviser, who ran the place - and began a housecleaning. Deirdre Walsh, the chief operating officer, was ousted, along with Russell Travers, the acting head of the National Counterterrorism Center.

"Patel was the action officer. He made it happen," recalled one former top intelligence official.

Anger toward Patel within the national security bureaucracy mounted after an Oct. 31, 2020, hostage rescue mission in Nigeria. The incident, never previously reported in detail, was described by four high-level sources.

It was a rescue mission that was nearly aborted partly because of inadequate coordination by Patel. SEAL Team Six had been assigned to rescue 27-year-old Philip Walton, a missionary's son who had been kidnapped by gunmen in Niger, near the border with Nigeria. Patel, as a senior counterterrorism adviser, had assured colleagues that the mission had a green light, according to several sources.

But as the SEALs were about to parachute jump to the rescue site, officials realized the Nigerian government hadn't been informed, as required.

A frantic last-minute effort to obtain the necessary permission ensued. Finally, just 15 minutes before the operational window closed, the Nigerians were given word, the SEALs parachuted down, and the hostage was rescued.

Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper on Nov. 9, five days after the election. Esper had sharply criticized Patel's actions during the Nigeria hostage rescue and had protested attempts to declassify intelligence about the Russia investigation. Trump installed in his place Christopher C. Miller, head of the National Counterterrorism Center and a former Trump White House aide, as acting defense secretary. Patel was named his chief of staff.

A half-dozen officials say Miller was largely a figurehead and that Patel was the key civilian official at the Pentagon during the last two months of Trump's presidency when he clashed with the CIA and the NSA over various issues.

The final chapter in this strange saga was Trump's brief effort in December to remove Haspel at CIA and replace her with Patel. Haspel's apparent crime was that for months she had been resisting efforts by Trump and Patel to declassify information he had gathered for Nunes back in 2017 and 2018.

An account of the final campaign to oust Haspel was compiled from several sources with close knowledge of events.

Trump's plan unfolded in December when Haspel visited the White House to attend the president's daily intelligence briefing. After the briefing, she was approached by Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who told her that Trump intended to fire CIA Deputy Director Vaughn Bishop and install Patel in his place.

Haspel balked. She said that she would resign rather than accept Patel as her deputy. She said she would like to deliver her resignation directly to the president. Meadows disappeared and returned a few minutes later to say that the president had changed his mind: Bishop wouldn't be fired; Patel wouldn't be sent to the agency; Haspel would remain as director.

One takeaway from this long, tangled story is oddly reassuring. For all the roadblocks in Trump's way, he had the authority as commander in chief to do what he wanted in national security. Facing resistance from courageous officials who sought to protect the government, Trump in many cases simply backed down.

As bad as this story was, in other words, it could have been much worse.

- - -

Contact David Ignatius on Twitter @IgnatiusPost

Political posturing won't rebuild our infrastructure

By e.j. dionne jr.
Political posturing won't rebuild our infrastructure


Advance for release Monday, April 19, 2021, and thereafter

(For Dionne clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

WASHINGTON - The verb "to posture" is not widely used by normal human beings, but it was invoked all the time when I covered the New York state legislature, back when politics wasn't nearly as polarized as it is now.

There was an admirable, if peculiar, honesty to admitting that what was being said wasn't actually what was meant. Typical off-the record comments ran "We're taking this posture now to try to get us to X," X being the real goal; or "He's posturing so he looks tough to his caucus before he tells them they have to cave."

The problem with Washington in 2021 might be described as posturing without a purpose - beyond scoring points against the White House. The Republican dance around President Joe Biden's infrastructure proposal almost makes me nostalgic for the sincerity of cynicism.

We know several things about the politics surrounding Biden's big investment plan. First, he wants to do far more than congressional Republicans will support. Second, the GOP doesn't want to pay for any plan with a corporate tax increase. Third, Republicans will say that whatever is passed should happen only on a bipartisan basis.

Which comes down to this: Do a whole lot less; pay for it our way, or not at all; and maybe we'll produce 10 GOP votes in the Senate to pass the bill in a normal way, rather than through the more cumbersome "reconciliation" process. That would require only the 50 votes Democratic senators can deliver on their own, plus Vice President Kamala Harris' tiebreaker.

Now, I'd concede that there are a few Republican senators, bless them, who really would like to vote for a reasonably substantial infrastructure bill. A larger group is fully aware that opposing popular and needed projects in their own states doesn't make their party look good.

Biden certainly has the upside of the issue. A New York Times/Survey Monkey poll released last week showed that 64 percent of Americans (including nearly three in 10 Republicans) approve his American Jobs Plan. Support for many of its particulars - improvements to roads and bridges, ports and transit, and universal broadband - ran even higher.

But the history of the Obama years has taught Democrats that Republicans aren't, well, posturing in good faith. They are not staking out one position today to lay the groundwork for reaching a mutually agreeable compromise tomorrow. Rather, many Democrats figure their opponents will string them along, and then, at the end, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., will still have to get the bill done with only Democratic votes.

The real question before Senate Democrats is whether it's worth seeing if enough Republicans would allow some significant share of infrastructure spending to pass in a bipartisan way. A leading advocate of what you might call the Big Test is Sen. Christopher A. Coons, D-Del. He says it might be worth dividing Biden's plan into two, with one winning GOP votes and the other passing through reconciliation. But he doesn't want to give the GOP forever.

"Over the next month, I believe we can and should work on a two-track path to address our nation's crumbling infrastructure, as well as President Biden's broader plan to make our economy work for all Americans," Coons told me.

"If my Republican colleagues are serious about a bipartisan bill, we should work with them to see if we can reach a deal by Memorial Day," he continued. "We should at the same time continue work on a larger legislative package so that Democrats can pass a bill by July if we can't make bipartisan progress."

The alternative Democratic view is that it's just not worth breaking up the plan, especially since there is virtually no chance Republicans will ever approve of any corporate tax increases to finance the package.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, calls himself "mostly agnostic on process" questions. But he argues that Democrats have already passed one big bill, the $1.9 trillion relief package, and that getting through one more large piece of legislation could be far easier than offering up bite-size chunks in a quest for GOP votes that might never materialize.

"I saw how hard the first one was," he said in an interview. "I know this is going to be hard. . . . Why not get as much in one package as we can so we don't have to do it a third time?"

Brown is right to be skeptical: Wagers on GOP goodwill have lately been suckers' bets. But Coons is also right that there are worse things than being caught trying bipartisanship - with a deadline. Better to know quickly how serious Republicans are about infrastructure. Let the burden be on them to show what brand of posturing they're engaged in.

- - -

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

What is the perfect number of Supreme Court justices?

By alexandra petri
What is the perfect number of Supreme Court justices?


Advance for release Saturday, April 17, 2021, and thereafter

(For Petri clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Alexandra Petri

A group of liberal Democrats from the Senate and House of Representatives has introduced legislation to add four more justices to the Supreme Court in order to restore partisan balance. This is an opinion, but it is only one possible opinion! I think we ought to just consider every possible number and see what we come up with.

8 billion: We can all agree that this would be too many. The size of the Doodle poll required to schedule court sessions would be a nightmare, and, besides, not all of them would have WiFi, and some of them would have just been born. Also, an even number.

328 million: Definitely an improvement from 8 billion but still a few too many, I think! They would all have to videoconference and it would overflow onto too many screens to be practical. Also, if everyone wanted to ask a question, even if Justice Clarence Thomas didn't, each hearing would last multiple years without even factoring in the amount of time required to answer the questions.

107,601: This is also too many, but at least it is an odd number! It is specifically the number of people who can fit into Michigan Stadium, so that does solve the problem of where everyone would sit. But I think once everyone was seated in Michigan Stadium, they would want to see a football game and would be disappointed to have to hear a court case instead.

5,500: They could all fit into a large theater! Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg used to love going to the opera, and this would be a number that would allow the new justices to replicate that experience. I suppose this presents the football problem again.

435: You would think this number would be manageable, but it is too many, I think. There is another branch of government trying to work with this number already, and it seems kind of chaotic and bad.

101: Might get mistaken for Dalmatians.

1: Probably too few? Would this justice also want to write dissents? Upside: No Doodle polls at all.

2: The minimum number of Supreme Court justices needed to play tennis. But probably otherwise unsuitable - how could you tell which opinion was the correct one?

3: Now we are getting somewhere! You get a clear majority, and if the Supreme Court justices play tennis, you can also have someone keep score and pick up the balls afterward, perhaps the most junior member.

4: Four was good enough for the March sisters, although they, too, did notice that it created problems and ultimately felt that three might be a more stable number. Good number to ensure that everyone feels included - no one ever talks about "fourth-wheeling," except maybe to compliment a car on being correctly constructed.

5: Mm, too boy band-y. Everyone would be expected to have one specific trait as a personality, and all the court coverage would come back to, "There's Justice 3, she's the sporty one! There's Justice 4, the bad boy!"

8: We tried this, and people did not like it!

10: Last number of Supreme Court justices that could be easily counted without removing any socks.

11: A more unwieldy 9, but it does create the option for the justices to play either one game of basketball with one scorekeeper or five games of tennis with one scorekeeper.

13: Perfect number for reenacting the Last Supper in judicial group portraits. Also, frees up the schedule for the SCOTUS basketball team because not everyone is needed to play in every game. Downsides: Does having more justices solve the problem we are trying to solve with the court, namely, the manner by which the last three justices have been deposited there, and the duration of time they are bound to spend once they arrive? Is the number the problem, exactly? Would just increasing the number of people on the Supreme Court without also addressing the structural issues of this centuries-old institution just cause this problem to mushroom?

9.5: I don't know how this would work, but I'd be willing to give it a try.

- - -

Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.

Biden should remember his own words

By kathleen parker
Biden should remember his own words


Advance for release Sunday, April 18, 2021, and thereafter

(For Parker clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

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By Kathleen Parker

WASHINGTON -- In 1983, then-Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware called "court-packing" a "bonehead idea," and warned in 2019 during a presidential primary debate that restructuring the Supreme Court by adding more justices would destroy "any credibility the court has at all."

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden declined to say whether he'd support expanding the court.

Now, it seems, President Biden has developed a fondness for boneheaded notions. Last week, he named a big bipartisan commission to study the future of the court. A few days later, Democrats in the House and Senate announced a forthcoming bill to add four more justices to the high bench.

Will we wake up one day soon to find 13 justices on the court? No. But Biden is slowly mainstreaming the idea of a larger court and hoping we gradually grow more comfortable with it.

Nothing has changed since Biden's 1983 assessment - oh, except that the court today leans conservative - and liberals don't like it.

But you don't get the sense that liberals on the court want to make it bigger. Justice Stephen G. Breyer has said, "If the public sees judges as politicians in robes, its confidence in the courts -- and in the rule of law itself -- can only diminish." And even the late justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg didn't see the logic of making more justices.

"If anything would make the court appear partisan it would be that," she said in 2019 about court-expansion. "One side saying, 'When we're in power, we're going to enlarge the number of judges so we would have more people who would vote the way we want them to.' So I am not at all in favor of that solution to what I see as a temporary situation."

The movement to restructure the court enjoys deep pockets, thanks in part to a nonprofit fundraising behemoth called Arabella Advisors. Arabella is an umbrella organization that manages four major nonprofits that, in turn, host more than 300 policy projects, some of which are laser-focused on the federal judiciary. It's noteworthy that when Republicans organize themselves to support conservative judges, the left writes furiously of "dark money." But when the left does the exact same thing, why, it's just a lighter shade of gray.

Biden is uncorking the commission to keep his left flank happy; and few people who follow these things believe it will finish its work by cooking up more justices on the bench. But it is likely that he is laying the predicate for such a move years from now.

You might even call this the "Never You Mind That Now"strategy, in which the Democrats are raising the prospect of a bigger court today only to seed it in our brains for their later use. This is a little like an arsonist who sets a fire so that he can put it out and become a hero. In the liberal version of this opera, a monster is created -- the legislation to increase the court -- so that the party can then kill it this round. When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she'd never allow the bill on the floor, the audience heaved a sigh of relief.

But the commission, if nothing else, serves the purpose of making something once unimaginable at least a topic of conversation. Basically, you get people talking about something, back it up with evidence (or commissions) and, gradually, the idea becomes less unpopular. People even forget why it was once objectionable.

Remember when "socialism" was a dirty word? Thanks to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a far-left '60s radical who for most of his career was taken seriously by no one outside of Vermont, we now have lesser, mainstream socialists in public office. And Sanders is now a snugly, flannel-clad grandpa beloved by America's young. He's not scary at all -- and neither is socialism.

Ideas that once seemed crazy can, in time, sound almost reasonable. And when the balance of power in our nation is so closely divided, a foot in a door here can have an enormous impact later.

Meanwhile, the objective has been achieved. The threatening sword of restructuring the court is aloft and hangs over the third branch of government. This alone is enough to undermine trust in the court's independence and poses a threat to democracy itself.

Boneheaded was -- and is -- the correct word.

- - -

Kathleen Parker's email address is

Misunderstanding patriotism

By george f. will
Misunderstanding patriotism


Advance for release Sunday, April 18, 2021, and thereafter

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By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- The philosopher's task is to facilitate clear thinking by making clarifying distinctions. People are not always grateful for this service, as Socrates discovered. The political philosopher's task is to clarify contested concepts, such as patriotism. Regarding this, Steven B. Smith has drawn intelligent distinctions that might have some on the right and left competing for the pleasure of serving him a cup of hemlock.

Patriotism is a species of loyalty and a form of love. In "Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes," Smith, a Yale philosopher, argues that many on the right profess to love the United States but misunderstand -- or, worse, reject -- the essence of what makes this creedal nation distinctive. And, Smith says, the patriotism that many on the left profess -- on those occasions when they warily, gingerly embrace the idea -- is a cold, watery affection for an abstraction. It is loyalty to a hypothetical United States that might be worthy of their love-as-loyalty.

Some on the right mistake their compound of grievances and resentments for patriotism. This mentality -- separating "real" or "true" Americans from the rest -- is akin to the ethno-nationalism that festers in Europe. It also is a sibling of the left's identity politics of group memberships: In the right's identity politics, the nation is the only group that matters. Patriotism understood as ethnic or racial solidarity disappears into truculent nationalism. "Like any virtue," Smith writes, "loyalty has its pathologies." Of which, ethno-nationalism is one.

If patriotism is loyalty and a form of love, then a so-called patriotism that is not an expression of happiness -- if it is not professed cheerfully -- is a faux patriotism. Today, for many on the right, patriotism is a grim tabulation of regrets about things lost, and animosity toward those who supposedly caused the losses. What some on the left call patriotism is often an agenda-cum-indictment, a determination to make the United States less awful than they say it has been, and is.

"For progressives," Smith writes, "patriotism is not so much loyalty to an already established nation, but an aspiration to a country still to be accomplished." And: "Progressivism has become less concerned with improving on the past than with erasing it." Smith is being delicate.

Because applause is often the echo of a platitude, people are forever applauding the notion that "dissent is the highest form of patriotism," partly because they think Thomas Jefferson said it, although there is no evidence he did. Of course, dissent can be patriotic. But a constant curdled dissent, in the form of disdain for the nation's past that produced its present, is incompatible with patriotism.

Those who believe that the nation's real founding was the arrival of slaves in 1619, that the American Revolution was fought to defend slavery, that the nation remains saturated with "systemic racism," that the economic system has always been fundamentally exploitive, that the social order is rotten with injustice and that even the nation's most revered historical figures are unworthy of respect -- those who think like this can be credited with moral earnestness, but not with patriotism: They cannot love what they will not praise.

Smith wonders why those he calls "new age progressives" call themselves progressives "when their theory of history is often anything but." It is not an optimistic narrative of the nation's upward trajectory; it is a counternarrative of "victimization and irredeemability."

Smith says that new age progressives who prefer cosmopolitanism to patriotism "lack a core value of patriotism, a sense of loyalty to a particular tradition and way of life." Cosmopolitanism "lacks passion and intensity. It is a joyless disposition." And "even at its best, cosmopolitanism is indifferent to the actual ties of loyalty and affection that bind people to home and country."

Patriotism, too, is a disposition -- a "peculiarly conservative" one. It is "akin to gratitude" and "rooted in a rudimentary, even primordial love of one's own: the customs, habits, manners, and traditions that make us who and what we are." Patriotism suggests "an extended family," which we love because it has "nurtured and sustained us through good times and bad."

"Patriotism," Smith argues, "is a learned disposition. It is not indoctrination into an ideology, but a component of an educated mind." Hence it is bad citizenship to teach American history as a litany of indictments. Although he thinks patriotism "must be taught," he also says "it is an ethos, a shared habit," something "felt," what Abraham Lincoln called "the mystic chords of memory." Smith's book will help prevent patriotism from fading to something only dimly remembered.

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George Will's email address is

A new FEMA program offers up to $9,000 to help with covid-19 funerals. Scammers see an opportunity.

By michelle singletary
A new FEMA program offers up to $9,000 to help with covid-19 funerals. Scammers see an opportunity.


Advance for release Sunday, April 18, 2021, and thereafter

(For Singletary clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.


WASHINGTON - A particularly shameless breed of scammers is already trying to take advantage of families looking for financial help from a new government program that offers up to $9,000 to help pay for burying covid-19 victims.

Under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act and American Rescue Plan Act, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is providing financial assistance for covid-related funeral expenses incurred after Jan. 20, 2020. As of April 15, more than 563,000 people have died from coronavirus in the U.S.

Even before the Biden administration started taking applications on April 12 for the financial relief program, fraudsters were targeting potential applicants in schemes intended to steal their personal data. FEMA issued a warning reporting that scammers are reaching out to people and offering to register them for the funeral assistance program. Don't believe these heinous people. FEMA will absolutely not be contacting applicants until they have called the agency or have already applied for assistance, the agency said.

Scammers are known to create cons based on current events, but this scheme - calling families grieving after losing a loved one to covid - is a despicable twist on the typical government impostor scam.

Here's a FAQ about the eligibility requirements, how to apply, and what to do if you've been scammed.

- Who can apply for the covid-19 funeral assistance program?

The person applying must be an individual who incurred funeral expenses.

To qualify, you must be a U.S. citizen, noncitizen national, or a qualified alien. You can apply for the funds if the deceased died in the U.S. or in a U.S. territory. The program does not have a requirement that the deceased be a U.S. citizen, noncitizen national, or qualified alien.

There are several categories of people who are not eligible for the relief, including foreign students and temporary work and tourist visa holders.

FEMA says funeral homes are not eligible to apply on behalf of a family. The establishment also can't be a co-applicant.

- What documents do I need to show to get assistance?

You will need a death certificate that must indicate the person's death was attributed directly or indirectly to covid-19. You must have documentation, such as receipts or a funeral home contract, proving you were responsible for the funeral expenses.

- What funeral costs are covered?

The program will help with eligible expenses for the funeral, including the cost of a casket, clergy services, the use of the funeral home, headstone, and burial plot. It also covers cremation and the cost of an urn.

Also, if you shared the cost of the funeral, it's important to note that FEMA says it will generally only provide assistance to one applicant per deceased individual. However, there can be a co-applicant.

"We recognize that multiple individuals may have contributed to funeral expenses for one deceased individual," FEMA said in a FAQ created for the program at

It's also possible to be reimbursed for expenses paid for multiple people who died as a result of covid.

Covid-19 funeral assistance is limited to a maximum payment of $9,000 per deceased individual and a maximum of $35,500 per applicant, per state, territory, or District of Columbia, according to a FEMA spokeswoman.

"If an applicant is responsible for funeral expenses for deceased individuals in multiple states, an application will be made for each state in which the death occurred," the spokeswoman wrote in an email. "Thus, it is possible for an applicant to receive funeral assistance for various deceased individuals in different states."

- How can I apply for the funeral assistance program?

Survivors can apply for benefits by contacting FEMA toll-free at 844-684-6333 (TTY: 800-462-7585). Multilingual services are available.

Online applications are not being accepted. You have to call FEMA, and that has already created an issue. The agency said it is experiencing high call volume, but it urges people to keep trying if they aren't connected right away.

The program doesn't have a deadline.

"We will not rush through calls because we intend to make sure every applicant gets their questions answered and receives the help they need to apply," the agency said.

- What should I do if I get a call about the funeral assistance program and was scammed?

Report the incident to the agency's helpline at 800-621-3362. Covid-related complaints can also be reported to the National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline by calling 866-720-5721 or by going online at

You should also report the scam to the Federal Trade Commission at FEMA recommends people file a complaint about the fraud to local law enforcement agencies, as well. To find your state's consumer protection office, go to

If you did not initiate a call to FEMA, do not disclose any information about yourself or the deceased relative, including confirming a name, birth date, or Social Security number. Don't respond to any emails or text messages from anyone claiming to be from FEMA or another federal agency.

If you are tempted to respond because the caller has some identifying information, keep in mind the crooks read the obituaries to find relatives of covid victims. Scammers may even have enough personal information to make people believe the calls are legit. But they could have easily obtained identifying details - a partial Social Security or birth date - from the many massive data breaches that have occurred in recent years.

- Should I file a complaint even if I didn't fall for the con?

Report the scam, even if you weren't victimized.

Although the agencies might not be able to address your specific case, reporting the scam helps authorities track down the scammers and may eventually lead to prosecutions.

FEMA says the agency has put in controls to mitigate the fraudulent activity, but the best offense is to be informed about how the funeral assistance program works. Even if you won't need it, pass along the information to others who could use the help.

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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 Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook ( 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.

(c) 2021, Washington Post Writers Group

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