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The Bay Area samples what life is like in Asian megacities — and for some of its own residents

As you might have heard, those of us who live in the Bay Area are breathing air this week that rivals Beijing’s, thanks to the fires raging across Northern California. West Oakland deals with bad air quality all the time, so I reached out to some folks there seeking perspective.

Margaret Gordon, a local grassroots activist, suggested I talk to Eryk Maundu. He’s a techie-turned-urban farmer who takes a data-driven approach to agriculture, and he had an inkling before most of us that something very bad was happening to the Bay Area’s air.

Just last week, he put up some new air quality sensors around his food plots. They registered a huge spike in contamination levels on Sunday night — three times worse than when he had tested the sensors around some friends who smoke. “I never thought I’d see it go higher than that,” he told me.

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Maundu thought he might have to throw the sensors out, until news broke Monday morning of wildfires tearing through Napa and Sonoma counties, about 50 miles north of San Francisco. Within the next few days, all of us in the Bay Area could see the same thing Maundu’s sensors were telling him: Our air was unhealthy to breath.

“The numbers are off the charts,” says Walter Wallace with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. The big health concern: Particulate matter carried by the smoke sticks to our lungs and can cause breathing and other health problems. “It’s so small that our bodies can’t defend against it.”

Suddenly, everyone in the region is getting double dose of what the air is like in parts of West Oakland, where one of the country’s busiest ports brings in a steady stream of truck traffic, nearby highways ferry tens of thousands of cars every day, and asthma rates are some of the highest in the state. On Thursday, the air quality throughout Oakland was second-worst in the nation behind Napa, where fires raged.

NASA Earth Observatory

More than 20 blazes consumed more than 200,000 acres of land statewide, largely north of the Bay Area, where at last count 31 people have died, close to 500 are missing, and 90,000 have been displaced. The largest of the fires, the so-called Tubbs fire, which is primarily raging in Sonoma County, was just 25-percent contained as of Friday morning, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The fires have destroyed homes and businesses in the region north of San Francisco often called “wine country.” In the Bay Area — which includes Oakland, where I live — we have been told to stay indoors. It’s a tall order in a part of the country where the predictable weather and the natural beauty begs residents to be outside. And our current predicament may continue through this weekend.

Anthony LeRoy Westerling, an environmental engineering professor at the University of California, Merced, says that wildfires are bigger, more frequent, and burn for longer now than they did in the 1980s. You’ll never guess what Westerling concludes is behind this phenomenon: A warmer climate that dries out forests. And more fires means more destruction where they burn and more intolerable air downwind.

The smoke blowing into the Bay Area has prompted a run on 3M N95 Particulate Respirator masks and air purifiers. Many who have the means have taken spontaneous road trips south or east to flee the particulate matter readings hovering around five times normal. Others are reporting headaches and respiratory problems. I suffered from childhood asthma, and spending about 10 minutes outside without a mask, breathing in air that smells like a campfire, made my lungs feel heavy.

All of this sent me to the Ace Hardware on 3rd St and Martin Luther King Jr. Way in West Oakland, where I joined a flow of customers buying N95 masks that sold for $2 a piece (I bought 12). The store has sold tens of thousands of masks in the past few days, struggling to try to keep up with demand.

“Yesterday morning was the big push, and then today has been even bigger,” the store’s general manager, Brian Altwarg, told me on Thursday. “And from what I see on the news, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

Florine Mims has lived in the area for nearly 60 years, and she arrived at the Ace around 2 pm on Thursday, riding and then pushing her electric wheelchair after its battery lost its charge. She has a number of health problems, including asthma, and hoped getting a mask would bring her some relief.

“They gave me two,” she says about the N95 masks she carried out of the store. “I’m hoping they’ll help me breathe better.”

Mims, and a significant percentage of West Oakland residents, are the group most at risk over the remaining days if fire containment, a change in wind direction, or rainfall doesn’t help clear out the noxious air, says John Balmes, a medical doctor and environmental health scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.

“A week of exposure to this level, it’s going to affect people with preexisting asthma, but it won’t cause their asthma to stay bad,” Balmes says. “They have bad pollution all the time in a lot of the megacities in Asia.”

While the regular air quality readings in West Oakland don’t quite rival those in places like Beijing or New Delhi, its residents are used to living with pollution. The community recently filed a federal civil rights complaint against the port of Oakland and the city for discriminating against the largely black part of town by allowing more development to creep into the area and ignoring pleas to monitor air quality.

For now, though, the experience of breathing in dirty air is a shared burden for people in the Bay Area. And that’s an irony that isn’t lost on those living in West Oakland, like Margaret Gordon.

“This whole thing with the fire was a real equalizer for everybody,” she says.

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The Bay Area samples what life is like in Asian megacities — and for some of its own residents

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‘Diablo Winds’ spark historic wildfires in California wine country

This post has been updated to include revised figures on the number of fires and death toll. 

It’s peak wildfire season in California, and Monday was one of the worst days in state history. More than 60 blazes are currently underway statewide.

At least a dozen wildfires sprung up Sunday night in and around Napa and Sonoma counties—also known as “wine country,” just north of San Francisco — prompting rushed evacuations of more than 20,000 people. In an attempt to speed the flow of relief and firefighting equipment and make the National Guard available, Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency.

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The Northern California firestorm has quickly burned nearly 100,000 acres, and is encroaching on neighborhoods in several places. At around 3 a.m. Monday, a Cal Fire official told a local television station that there was “no hope of containment right now.”

In total, the fires have killed 13 people and destroyed more than 1,500 structures as of Tuesday morning, making them some of the most destructive in state history. More than 100 people have been treated for burns and smoke inhalation at regional hospitals, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, and more than 150 people are still missing. Nationwide, this year’s fire season has cost more than $2 billion, the most expensive on record.

Smoke from the fires is visible from across the Bay Area, with many residents reporting the smell of smoke and even ashes falling from the sky. The National Weather Service says that winds at higher elevations in some parts of Sonoma County exceeded hurricane force, with several areas reporting gusts greater than 50 mph.

Several of the worst wildfires in California history have sprung up during October, near the end of California’s months-long dry season. It’s this time of year when a combination of strong offshore winds and low humidity can quickly fan a seemingly innocent spark into a raging inferno.

These winds are usually formed by a strong inland high pressure center, which pushes air down mountainsides and through canyons, causing it to warm up and dry out — a perfect environment for fast-growing fires. In Northern California, they are generally called “Diablo winds,” after Mt. Diablo in the eastern Bay Area. A 2015 study said that climate change is making these wind events more frequent and more severe in California. According to the Bay Area branch of the National Weather Service, conditions will begin to improve starting on Tuesday morning.

One particularly frightening fire in Northern California, the Tubbs fire near Santa Rosa, jumped the 101 freeway, forcing a hospital to evacuate its patients. Officials report evacuation centers that have been set up have already filled to capacity. Aerial images of Santa Rosa on Monday showed widespread devastation of entire neighborhoods.

“People are running red lights, there is chaos ensuing,” Santa Rosa resident Ron Dodds told a local television station. “It’s a scary time. It looks like Armageddon.”

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‘Diablo Winds’ spark historic wildfires in California wine country

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Harvey’s record rains just triggered Houston dams to overflow

In 1935, a storm swept through Houston, turning parts of the city into a lake. It was a wake-up call to city officials; they needed to get serious about flood control. About a decade later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finished building two massive reservoirs west and upstream of the city. For the better part of a century, the Addicks and Barker dams have held back water that would have otherwise surged through Buffalo Bayou, the flood-prone waterway that snakes through downtown Houston before dumping into the Ship Channel.

This week, for the second time in as many years, a storm has pushed the Addicks and Barker dams to their limit. Early Monday morning, as Tropical Storm Harvey lingered over Houston and drowned whole swaths of the city, the Army Corps of Engineers began controlled releases from the dams, the first time they’ve done so during a major storm. By Monday afternoon, several neighborhoods near the reservoirs were under voluntary or mandatory evacuation as officials announced that releases from Addicks and Barker would continue for the foreseeable future. By early Tuesday morning, Addicks had topped the dam’s 108-foot spillway, leading to what officials call “uncontrolled releases” from the reservoir. Some homes could be inundated for a month.

Harris County Flood Control District meteorologist Jeff Linder called the releases the least-worst decision officials could make in light of floodwaters that continue to fill the reservoirs faster than they can safely drain. “If you are upstream of the reservoir, the worst is not over,” Linder said at a Monday afternoon press conference, warning that “water is going to be inundating areas that have currently not been inundated.” When someone asked him, via Twitter, whether the dams could break and trigger a Katrina-like disaster, Linder offered a one-word response: “No.”

That assurance comes despite the Corps of Engineers labeling the dams an “extremely high risk of catastrophic failure” after a 2009 storm that saw only a fraction of the rain Harvey poured on Houston this week. Officials insist that the hair-raising label has more to do with the breathtaking consequences of any major dam failure upstream of the country’s fourth-largest city than the actual likelihood of such a breach. In 2012, they detailed how a dam failure during a major storm would cause a multi-billion dollar disaster that turns the city into Waterworld.

Still, the Corps in recent years has implemented only piecemeal fixes to the earthen dams, including a $75 million upgrade that was underway before Harvey hit this weekend. Officials are barely even discussing how to fund a third reservoir that some experts say the region desperately needs.

This is the second year in a row that severe floodwaters have tested Addicks and Barker. Just last year, during 2016’s so-called Tax Day Flood, for the first time, the reservoirs hit and surpassed the level of a 100-year flood. That happened again this weekend, meaning the dams have seen two extremely rare flood events (at least one-in-a-100-year events) in just as many years. Last year was also the first time the National Weather Service ever issued a flood warning for the Addicks and Barker watersheds.

The dams are in some ways emblematic of how flood planning in the Bayou City hasn’t kept up with the region’s booming population and development, even as experts predict that climate change will dump increasingly severe storms on Houston’s doorstep with greater frequency. They were built in a region of water-absorbing prairie grasses that have in recent years been paved over by water-impermeable parking lots, driveways and suburban streets. The Sierra Club even sued the Corps in a failed attempt to stop construction on a nearby stretch of the Grand Parkway, a major toll road project that some opposed fearing it would coax development in an area that’s critical to the region’s flood control efforts.

Still, as the Texas Tribune and ProPublica pointed out in this 2016 investigation, Houston-area flood officials refuse to connect the region’s flooding problems to poorly planned development. As a result, every year people will keep building hundreds, if not thousands, of additional structures in Harris County’s 100-year floodplains, even as those “rare” storms start to hit year after year.

In a Monday press conference, Edmond Russo, an engineer with the Corps’ Galveston district, said officials wanted to keep high water from building up and going over the Addicks and Barker spillways, “because in that case, we do not have control over the water.” He’d hoped releases would stay low enough so that the already overtaxed Buffalo Bayou stays at the same level in the short term. In the long term, officials say it could take one to three months to totally drain the reservoirs.

Of course, that all depends on what happens in the coming days. Updating reporters on the reservoirs’ status Monday evening, Linder said more heavy rainfall or levee breaches upstream could change how fast the dams must release water downstream.

“Our infrastructure is certainly being tested to its limits,” Linder said.

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Harvey’s record rains just triggered Houston dams to overflow

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Sorry, Donald: Pittsburgh Thinks You Are Wrong About Climate Change

Mother Jones

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On Thursday, President Donald Trump portrayed his decision to pull the United States out of the historic Paris climate deal as a key part of his campaign pledge to put America first. “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” the president said.

There’s just one problem: The citizens of Pittsburgh are strongly supportive of climate action. According to a recent study from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 68 percent of adults in the Pittsburgh metro area support strict limits on carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants—a key element of the US commitment under the Paris deal. For Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, that number is 74 percent. For Pennsylvania’s 14th Congressional District, which also includes Pittsburgh, it’s 78 percent.

Roughly two-thirds of Pennsylvanians—and Americans as a whole—believe the United States should remain in the Paris agreement, according to the Yale research.

There doesn’t appear to be any data on the popularity of the Paris agreement within Pittsburgh itself, but it’s worth noting that the city’s mayor, Bill Peduto, actually traveled to Paris during the 2015 negotiations to help press for an agreement. “Pittsburgh and other cities are on the front lines of the climate change crisis, and it is our responsibility to address the deep challenges it is creating for us, our children and our grandchildren,” he said in a statement at the time, according to the Pittsburg Post-Gazette.

Peduto took to Twitter Thursday to express his displeasure with Trump’s comments:

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Sorry, Donald: Pittsburgh Thinks You Are Wrong About Climate Change

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Quote of the Day: Pink Donut Boxes

Mother Jones

From Peter Yen of Santa Ana Packaging, a manufacturer of donut boxes:

Anytime you see a movie or sitcom set in New York and a pink doughnut box appears, you know it obviously took place in L.A.

I did not know that! But it turns out that pink donut and pastry boxes are unique to Southern California.1 Why? Long story short, a Cambodian refugee from the Khmer Rouge became the donut king of Orange County during the 80s before he gambled away his fortune in the 90s. When he was starting out he asked his supplier for a cheaper donut box, and the pink box was born. Click the link for the longer story.

1Are they really? Or have they since spread to the rest of the country? Let us know in comments.

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Quote of the Day: Pink Donut Boxes

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Housing Prices Are Booming in Southern California

Mother Jones

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From the LA Times today:

The median home price in Los Angeles County has reached the all-time high set in 2007, a milestone that follows five years of steady recovery but comes amid renewed concerns over housing affordability. Home prices rose nearly 6% in April from a year earlier, hitting the $550,000 level where the median plateaued in summer 2007 before a sharp decline that bottomed out in 2012.

….Orange County surpassed its pre-bust high last year, and in April set a new record of $675,000. San Diego County also exceeded its pre-bust peak for the first time last month, as the median price — the point at which half the homes sold for more and half for less — climbed 7.4% to $525,000.

Inflation has risen 20 percent since 2007, so this means home prices in Southern California haven’t really set a record. They’re still 20 percent away from that. Here’s how CoreLogic scores the current housing market compared to its bubble peak:

So things look OK. Loan delinquencies are low, credit scores have remained high, and national housing prices are high but not stratospheric.

And yet…Southern California, Arizona, and Florida are all overvalued. That’s three out of the four states that led the bubble in 2006. Even Texas, which avoided the last bubble, is looking high. And anecdotally, homes are selling pretty fast around here.

This is the kind of thing that makes me think we might be back into a recession by 2018. The expansion is nine years old, unemployment is about as low as it can get, housing prices are increasing at a good clip, auto sales are anemic, and corporate profits are rising steeply. On the other side of the ledger, economic growth and wage growth are pretty modest, and there are no signs of an oil price spike around the corner.

I dunno. Things just feel a little fragile right now. But maybe I’m off base.

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Housing Prices Are Booming in Southern California

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World leadership could cancel out Trump’s polluting ways.

In early May, laborers harvesting cabbage in a field near Bakersfield, California, caught a whiff of an odor. Some suddenly felt nauseated.

A local news station reported that winds blew the pesticide Vulcan — which was being sprayed on a mandarin orchard owned by the produce company Sun Pacific — into Dan Andrews Farms’ cabbage patch.

Vulcan’s active ingredient, chlorpyrifos, has been banned for residential use for more than 15 years. It was scheduled to be off-limits to agriculture this year — until the EPA gave it a reprieve in March. Kern County officials are still confirming whether Sun Pacific’s insecticide contained chlorpyrifos.

More than 50 farmworkers were exposed, and 12 reported symptoms, including vomiting and fainting. One was hospitalized. “Whether it’s nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, seek medical attention immediately,” a Kern County Public Health official warned.

If chlorpyrifos’ presence is confirmed, the EPA may have some explaining to do. The Dow Chemical compound is a known neurotoxin, and several studies connect exposure to it with lower IQ in children and other neurological deficits.

The Scott Pruitt–led agency, however, decided that — and stop me if you’ve heard this one before — the science wasn’t conclusive.

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World leadership could cancel out Trump’s polluting ways.

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Texas’ Governor Just Signed the Most Anti-Immigrant Bill in Years

Mother Jones

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During an unannounced, five-minute livestream on Facebook Sunday night, Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation outlawing sanctuary cities and granting law enforcement unprecedented powers in tracking down undocumented immigrants.

“Texans expect us to keep them safe—and that’s exactly what we’re going to do by me signing the law,” Abbott told the camera, punctuating his remarks by tapping the bill before signing it. “Texas has now banned sanctuary cities in the Lone Star State.”

“It won’t be tolerated in Texas,” Abbot continued. “Elected officials and law enforcement agencies, they don’t get to pick and choose what laws they will obey.”

Immigration advocates are describing it as the most hostile state law to undocumented immigrants in the country and point out that sanctuary cities are actually safer than other cities, according to FBI crime data. The Facebook Live event allowed the governor to avoid protests a typical signing would have likely drawn, the Texas Tribune noted. A spokesperson for the governor claimed the move was an effort to reach people directly where they’re consuming news.

Abbott declared banning sanctuary cities, jurisdictions that refuse to fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities, a legislative priority this year, and Texas has quickly become one of the battlegrounds in the national debate over them. When Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez announced her department would no longer comply with immigration authorities after taking office earlier this year, the governor cut off funding in retaliation and even threatened to oust her. Meanwhile lawmakers in the statehouse have been debating how wide-reaching the ban on sanctuary cities should be, settling on legislation late last month after a 16-hour marathon hearing. Horrified by the outcome, immigration advocates have pushed back, protesting at the state capitol during the lengthy hearing on the bill last month and gathering outside the governor’s mansion last night.

SB 4 does far more than simply outlaw sanctuary cities. When the new rules go into effect, law enforcement officials and other local leaders who refuse to cooperate with immigration authorities could face to up to a year of jail time and be personally fined up to $4,000. Additionally, any local government violating the law will also be subject to fines—$1,000 at first with each single subsequent infraction adding penalties that can potentially reach $25,500.

The law also grants law enforcement throughout the state sweeping new powers that many immigration advocates consider a form of profiling. One of the most controversial provisions of the new law allows police officers to question someone’s immigration status during encounters such as a routine traffic stop as opposed to during a lawful arrest.

David Leopold, an immigration lawyer and the former head of the American Immigration Lawyers Associates, says it’s the most hostile state law to undocumented immigrants in the country. “It’s like SB1070, the Arizona ‘show me your papers’ law, on steroids,” Leopold says, referring to the controversial legislation that required police to check the immigration status of anyone they detain if they believe that person might be in the country illegally.

“This is a license to racially profile,” Leopold says. “What Texas has done here is told the police…if a person has an accent, is brown, you should probably start asking questions about their immigration status.”

While much of the Arizona law was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2012, the “show me your papers” portion was not struck down—though the justices left open the possibility that such laws could be ruled as being unconstitutional at a later time.

When SB 1070 passed, it sparked outrage across the country and businesses as well as other state governments boycotted Arizona. Immigration activists are strenuously protesting the Texas measure, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund is planning to sue before it takes effect in September. But so far, the new law isn’t attracting nearly the kind of national attention that Arizona’s law once did.

Leopold points out that this law “came up quietly.” In the seven years since SB1070 was debated, he says, the capacity for outrage about these measures has waned because “we’ve had so much outrageous news about immigration, so many outrageous things and shocking things have happened since Donald Trump took office.”

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Texas’ Governor Just Signed the Most Anti-Immigrant Bill in Years

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This Mississippi Sheriff’s Department Is Completely Out of Control, Lawsuit Alleges

Mother Jones

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In racially segregated Madison County, Mississippi, black residents live in fear of the police. According to a federal lawsuit filed Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, the Madison County Sheriff’s Department has been using illegal tactics and subjecting people who live in majority-black towns to unreasonable searches of their bodies, their homes, and their cars. The purpose of these stops, the ACLU alleges, is to generate revenue by collecting unpaid fees and fines from those who are detained.

“There is a decades-old policy of methodically and systematically targeting black people with Fourth Amendment violations that are unheard of in white communities and in most of the United States,” says Paloma Wu, the legal director of the ACLU of Mississippi.

According to the lawsuit, roadblocks are one of the main tactics used by the MCSD. Deputies allegedly set up checkpoints in black neighborhoods and towns, near places of employment, and near black-owned businesses. The department’s written roadblock policy is short, vague, and does not include any restrictions on how and when deputies may use them, according to the ACLU.

The MCSD did not respond to requests for comment.

The use of systematic arrests to generate revenue wouldn’t be unique to Mississippi. The US Department of Justice’s report on Ferguson, Missouri—published after a police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014—found that the city’s police force was using a similar strategy. The protests in Ferguson catalyzed a wave of police reform efforts during the Obama administration, but the Mississippi case comes at a time when civil rights advocates are worried that President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions will undo much of that progress.

Madison County is the wealthiest county in Mississippi. Of its 105,000 residents, 58 percent are white and 38 percent are black. Most of the wealth is concentrated in white areas. The plaintiffs, 10 black people who all reside in the county, allege that white residents are not subject to the same policing strategies. According to the suit, between May and September 2016, 81 percent of roadblock arrests and 82 percent of pedestrian arrests were of black individuals.

According to the complaint, MCSD has conducted thousands of unreasonable searches of black residents of the county. As a result of these traumatic experiences, many black residents experience fear and anxiety over the simple act of leaving their homes or driving their cars. The Madison County Sheriff Department’s policing tactics impact “virtually every aspect of Black residents’ lives,” says the complaint, adding that “the very real possibility of unlawful and humiliating searches and seizures, as well as the attendant prospect of arrest and jail time for unpaid fines and fees” looms over their heads.

The suit alleges that Marvin McField, one of the plaintiffs, has been stopped multiple times at different roadblocks in the past few years. The 37-year-old has lived in predominantly black Flora, Mississippi, his entire life and uses a pacemaker because he suffers from a serious heart condition.

At one such roadblock several years ago, according to the complaint, McField was ordered to exit his vehicle, after which deputies handcuffed and searched him and then threw him onto the hood of the car. The deputies then allegedly left him in the back of a patrol car with the windows rolled up on a hot summer day for approximately 15 to 20 minutes. The deputies drove off with him in custody but stopped a few minutes later and beat him in the chest until McField told them he could not breathe, according to the suit.

Next, deputies took McField to the Madison County Detention Center, “where the deputies beat him again—this time hitting him in the head instead of in his chest,” the complaint says. He was held in jail for more than two weeks without being charged with a crime, a clear violation of the right to due process, according to the suit. He was also not permitted to make any phone calls. After 19 days, McField was brought before a judge—without a lawyer. The judge, who is unnamed in the suit, simply told him that he had served his time and was free to go, according to the complaint.

In addition to stopping residents in their cars, the complaint alleges that deputies also stop and search pedestrians walking past the designated checkpoints. In January 2017, plaintiff Steven Smith was walking into the affordable housing complex where he lives. Deputies searched him, even though there was no probable cause, the suit states.

After deputies ran Smith’s identification, they discovered he had unpaid fines and court fees. He couldn’t afford to pay the overdue money and was jailed for 29 days.

Quinnetta Manning, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the Madison County Sheriff’s Department ACLU of Mississippi

The searches allegedly extend to residents’ private homes, as well. “There are a lot of warrantless invasions of black people’s houses and lots of excessive force, which is just a fancy way of saying they physically hurt people,” says Wu. In June 2016, Khadafy and Quinnetta Manning were at home when six deputies began banging on their door. When Quinnetta Manning opened the door, the suit alleges, the deputies pushed past her and began demanding that she sign a false witness statement implicating her neighbor’s boyfriend in a burglary. She told the deputies that she had not witnessed a burglary.

Khadafy Manning, who is disabled and walks with a cane, had just woken up and was not dressed. When he told deputies that his wife didn’t have to provide a statement, a deputy handcuffed him, swore at him, and began choking him, according to the complaint. The deputies allegedly threatened to arrest the Mannings if they didn’t comply. According to the suit, Quinnetta Manning agreed to write the statement out of fear, but deputies dragged Khadafy Manning out the door anyway. The deputies placed him in a car and began to beat him inside the vehicle, according to the complaint. “Mr. Manning was humiliated that his neighbors saw him being forcibly taken out of his family’s home while wearing only his underwear,” the suit says. The couple ended up writing false witness statements, according to the suit.

After the incident, Khadafy Manning sought legal remedies for the physical and emotional pain that he and his family suffered. Several months later in, February 2017, a deputy handcuffed Khadafy Manning and searched his car after telling him that he knew Manning had been “having people come around here asking questions,” the complaint alleges.

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This Mississippi Sheriff’s Department Is Completely Out of Control, Lawsuit Alleges

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A Judge Struck Down the "Cocaine Mom" Law That Put Pregnant Women in Jail

Mother Jones

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On Friday, a Wisconsin district court struck down a decades-old state law that criminalizes pregnant women with histories of drug use by labeling them as child abusers and letting juvenile courts appoint guardians and lawyers to represent the interests of their fetuses.

The law, called the Unborn Child Protection Act, was passed in 1997 and made the state responsible for protecting fetuses at all stages of pregnancy. Known as the “cocaine mom” law, it gave juvenile courts jurisdiction over the “expectant mother”—no matter what her age—and allowed the courts to force pregnant women into drug treatment if she had any history of drug use, and into jail if she refused treatment.

Public health groups opposed the law at the time, arguing it would scare women away from prenatal care. “A criminal justice approach to maternal and child health is not the best alternative,” said Milwaukee’s Health Department at the time. “Readily available drug and alcohol treatment for expectant mothers would be preferable to threatening mothers with incarceration and loss of paternal sic rights.”

Tamara Loertscher, whose case was decided on Friday, was incarcerated and held in solitary confinement while pregnant as a result of the law. In 2014, Loertscher, 29, sought care at a hospital in Wisconsin after finding out she was pregnant. At the hospital, she told medical staff that she had a history of methamphetamine and marijuana use, but that she’d stopped using when she realized she was going to have a baby.

That’s when the courts and child services got involved. Loertscher was subject to several juvenile court hearings, and when she refused to participate in an in-treatment drug program, she was jailed for contempt of court. A lawyer was appointed by the state to represent Loertscher’s 14- week fetus, but Loertscher herself was not given legal counsel. She spent almost three weeks incarcerated in a Taylor County jail, including several days in solitary confinement. During this time, Loertscher received no prenatal care, nor treatment for a thyroid condition.

Eventually, Loertscher agreed to comply with the state’s recommended treatment and weekly drug testing. But nonetheless, the county department of human services concluded that she had committed child maltreatment because of her previous drug use (it eventually withdrew the finding). All of her drug tests were negative, and in 2015, Loertscher delivered a healthy baby boy.

That year, Loertscher sued Wisconsin and Taylor County in federal court for violating her civil rights. And on Friday, a Wisconsin federal court ruled that the law is too vague and thus unconstitutional, but the court denied her request for damages as part of the ruling on Friday.

The law “purported to protect ‘unborn children,'” says Lynn Paltrow, executive director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which represented Loertscher in her case against the state, “but in fact subverted maternal and child health and deprived adult women who became pregnant of fundamental constitutional rights.”

Loertscher was not the only woman arrested under the Wisconsin law. According to Paltrow, Wisconsin state documents show that since 2006, child protective services looked into more than 3400 cases of “unborn child abuse” and nearly 470 women were found to have committed such abuse.

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A Judge Struck Down the "Cocaine Mom" Law That Put Pregnant Women in Jail

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