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What Happened: December 2, 2021

Tablet’s afternoon news digest: Federal Omicron strategy; crime in Philadelphia; Canadian push to boycott Beijing Olympics

The Scroll
December 02, 2021

The Big Story

Guest-edited by Sean Cooper

Despite a lack of definitive scientific consensus about how the Omicron variant spreads faster than previous variants or whether it poses an enhanced public risk to those who have been vaccinated or have natural immunity, world leaders have expedited the implementation of a new suite of testing, mask, and travel measures to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. This afternoon, President Biden unveiled a new protocol for international travelers, who will be required to present a negative COVID-19 test within 24 hours of their departure flight to the United States. Rather than providing rapid at-home antigen tests for free or at nearly no cost to the public, as other nations have done, President Biden will funnel much of his new effort to increase testing capacity through private health-care corporations, which will reimburse customers for the expense. For the uninsured, tests will be provided at public health clinics. In Europe, the Omicron variant has served as the catalyst for Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Commission, to “encourage and potentially think about compulsory vaccination within the European Union,” she said yesterday. In light of the lack of conclusive information about the Omicron variant, some public health officials have echoed the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Ghebreyesus, who cautioned this week against the implementation of punitive and “blunt, blanket measures.”

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Today’s Back Pages: Philadelphia’s Spiral into Violence

The Rest

→ Three teenagers were captured and arrested by law enforcement after they scaled a perimeter wall and escaped the Darwin Howard Springs COVID-19 quarantine facility in Australia’s Northern Territory. The government lockdown camp is home to a population of upwards of 2,000 residents who are either returning from abroad or suspected of having been exposed to a nearby outbreak. The isolation has been “pretty hard for some people ... used to being close to family and community,” Michael Gunner, the head minister of the territory, said this week. All three teenagers had received negative tests before attempting to break out of the lockdown facility. “The health risk to the community was very low, so that does give cause for comfort,” Gunner said.

The FBI is capable of accessing certain messages, user information, and contacts via WhatsApp, Signal, and Apple iMessage chat applications, according to internal FBI documents obtained by a government transparency nonprofit and shared with Rolling Stone. The ability of law enforcement to obtain a target’s phone contacts through Facebook’s WhatsApp is of particular concern to privacy advocates who’d once championed the platform for its encryption.
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→ On Tuesday night, Barbados’ Dame Sandra Mason became the head of the world’s newest republic, taking the reins from Queen Elizabeth II. First colonized by Britain in 1672, the Barbados plantation slavery system propelled vast fortunes made in sugar, rum, and human trafficking. Many questions remain about the future of Barbados under Mason. The constitutional structures that will govern the new republic are not clear. And republican fervor has been a distraction from serious problems on the island, including a bungled COVID-19 response, the collapse of the tourist trade, and growing inequality in Barbadian society.

→ London’s Jewish Chronicle posted a video on its Twitter feed showing a bus with Jewish passengers celebrating the first night of Chanukah in northwest London being harassed by a group of men who spat and banged their shoes on the windows. A woman on the bus said she was certain she and other passengers were harassed because they are Jewish. “No one else in the street was being targeted,” she said.

Video has emerged of a group of men spitting at a bus full of Jewish teenagers in Oxford Street where the group were celebrating the first night of Chanukah.

— The Jewish Chronicle (@JewishChron) December 1, 2021

→Multiple political leaders in Canada have joined together in a call upon the reigning liberal party to boycott the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing. The protest against the Chinese government’s human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region would involve a diplomatic boycott in which athletes would compete but no Canadian officials would attend the games. The Chinese government is also under increased pressure for the continued censorship of tennis star and three-time Olympian Peng Shuai, who has not traveled outside of China or been heard from publicly since she accused a former vice premier of China of sexual assault. The Women’s Tennis Association announced yesterday that it is suspending all of its tennis events in China until Shuai is able to speak freely and her claims of assault have been investigated.

Partisan news efforts continue to grow across the United States as a new media operation, Heartland Signal, launches its digital news site and radio station targeted at battleground states across the Midwest. With backing from the major Democratic donor Fred Eychaner, the left-leaning outlet will try to combat the reach of conservative radio as it champions Democratic politicians and causes. Heavily partisan news services such as Heartland will reach audiences once informed by local independent newspapers. Last month, Alden Global Capital announced its effort to acquire one of the last independent newspaper chains in the nation, Lee Enterprise, which owns 90 publications in 26 states. If the hedge fund, frequently identified as a newspaper vulture for its habit of gutting newsrooms and turning outlets into click-bait shells of their former selves, acquires the chain, major midwest regional publications such as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch would be under its control. 

→A new study forthcoming in The Astronomical Journal predicts that 1 out of every 15 points visible in the night’s sky are not stars but rather satellites. Researchers developed a model for night-sky congestion based on the traffic patterns and launch schedules of the 65,000 satellites that have been launched thus far by corporations and governments including Amazon, SpaceX, and the Chinese StarNet.

→While long delays and unreliable service have made commercial air travel its own unique form of psychological and physical torment during the pandemic, the private jet business has been booming. Private jet flights were up 60% last month compared to the year prior, according to WingX, an industry data firm. Along with private jet charter travel, sales of jets themselves, which range in price from a few million dollars to $70 million or more, are up 50% this year.

The Back Pages

backpages Philadelphia’s Spiral into Violence

On Sunday afternoon, after spending the Thanksgiving weekend with his family, 21-year-old Temple senior Samuel Collington was unpacking his car outside his campus apartment when he was shot and killed during a botched car robbery. Last night, Latif Williams, the 17-year-old who Philadelphia police named as a suspect in the murder, turned himself in to investigators. In August, it turns out, Williams had been arrested for a separate “gunpoint carjacking that did not result in bodily injury to the victim, but by its nature was violent,” a representative of the district attorney said in a statement yesterday. Because the witness to that summer carjacking did not appear in court, the DA withdrew its case against Williams. The DA office said this week that the August incident still “remains under active investigation, and our office continues to pursue accountability for that crime.”

The district attorney’s move to halt its initial prosecution of Williams was of a piece with the office’s ongoing strategy to eliminate cash bail and take a less punitive approach against nonviolent crime—though what constitutes a “violent crime” is not exactly clear. During the summer carjacking case, which included underage possession of a weapon and charges of aggravated assault, the office did not challenge the judge’s decision to offer Williams a no-cash bail, which released him from police custody until the DA’s case against him was ultimately withdrawn.

Since Collington’s murder on Sunday, two Philadelphia transit police survived a shooting attack by a man who was being pursued for the gun slaying of his girlfriend; two 21-year-old men were charged for the shooting of a 14-year-old high school freshman shot 18 times at his bus stop; an off-duty police officer was shot eight times; a 40-year-old woman was killed after being shot eight times; and in an incident not far from where Collington was murdered, a 60-year-old man survived being shot three times in the face. As The Scroll readers will recall, Philadelphia is in the midst of one of its deadliest and most violent years since 1990, with homicides now at 512 and a total of 1,687 shootings thus far this year.

Since last summer’s political movement to Defund the Police, and Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s own contentious relationship with both the chief of police and the police union, morale within the Philadelphia Police Department has been a continual concern, according to police representatives. A recent poll of the police force found that low morale was largely attributed to problems maintaining adequate staff numbers and a “fear of reprimand” for carrying out police duties. During the height of last summer’s protests against police brutality, Temple leadership withdrew its charitable contributions to the Philadelphia Police Foundation, an organization it had previously supported. “Upon review and community input, we have decided that the university will no longer provide this support,” Temple’s president, Richard Englert, said at the time. “Instead, Temple will reallocate these funds to support social justice programs at the university.”

Following Collington’s murder, Temple University leadership has taken a renewed interest in the kinds of protection police can provide its students, and it’s promised to increase its campus police force by 50%, collaborate with city police to increase their off-campus patrol, and pursue funding to amplify campus safety. Temple students, for their part, continue to express fear about their safety both on and off campus in light of Collington’s death and ongoing nearby shootings.

Despite the record-breaking homicides and violent crimes not only in Philadelphia but also in St. Louis, Albuquerque, Seattle, Colorado Springs, Rochester, and several other urban areas, Defund the Police and prison abolitionists continue to fight for their cause. They advocate for a community group approach that reduces root causes that lead to violence while supplanting police responsibility to respond to incidents of domestic disputes, mental health crises, and nonviolent crime. Some of those groups are no doubt admirable organizations, and some research shows they can effectively reduce crime by as much as 10% in isolated settings. But they have not yet been implemented on a wide scale, and their efficacy as a replacement for police is entirely speculative. Philadelphia has recently announced it would make a historic $160 million investment in these programs, but the city has not detailed any metrics it will use to determine if the programs are a success. Moreover, there is no governing agency tasked with oversight to ensure that money doesn’t turn into a nightmare of grift and corruption, a perennial problem in Philadelphia. At the moment, the city’s future remains uncertain as it decides how it will ensure safety on its streets.

Send your tips, comments, questions, and suggestions to [email protected].

Tablet’s afternoon newsletter edited by Jacob Siegel and Park MacDougald.

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