Category: Investigative Journalism

‘Death by Gentrification’

Rebecca Solnit in the Guardian
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Writing for the Guardian, Rebecca Solnit tells the story of the killing of Alejandro Nieto in March 2014, a death ‘that shamed San Francisco’. (Also available as a podcast.)

[…]

On the evening of 21 March 2014, Evan Snow, a thirtysomething “user experience design professional”, according to his LinkedIn profile, who had moved to the neighbourhood about six months earlier (and who has since departed for a more suburban environment), took his young Siberian husky for a walk on Bernal Hill.

As Snow was leaving the park, Nieto was coming up one of the little dirt trails that leads to the park’s ring road, eating chips. In a deposition prior to the trial, Snow said that with his knowledge of the attire of gang members, he “put Nieto in that category of people that I would not mess around with”.

His dog put Nieto in the category of people carrying food, and went after him. Snow never seemed to recognise that his out-of-control dog was the aggressor: “So Luna was, I think, looking to move around the benches or behind me to run up happily to get a chip from Mr Nieto. Mr Nieto became further – what’s the right word? – distressed, moving very quickly and rapidly left to right, trying to keep his chips away from Luna. He ran down to these benches and jumped up on the benches, my dog following. She was at that point vocalising, barking, or kind of howling.”

The dog had Nieto cornered on the bench while its inattentive owner was 40 feet away – in his deposition for the case, under oath, his exact words were that he was distracted by a female “jogger’s butt”. “I can imagine that somebody would – could assume the dog was being aggressive at that point,” Snow said. The dog did not come when he called, but kept barking. Nieto, Snow says, then pulled back his jacket and took his Taser out, briefly pointing at the distant dog-owner before he pointed it at the dog baying at his feet. The two men yelled at each other, and Snow apparently used a racial slur, but would not later give the precise word. As he left the park, he texted a friend about the incident. His text, according to his testimony, said, “in another state like Florida, I would have been justified in shooting Mr Nieto that night” – a reference to that state’s infamous “stand your ground” law, which removes the obligation to retreat before using force in self-defence. In other words, he apparently wished he could have done what George Zimmerman did to Trayvon Martin: execute him without consequences.

Soon after, a couple passed by Nieto. Tim Isgitt, a recent arrival in the area, is the communications director of a nonprofit organisation founded by tech billionaires. He now lives in suburban Marin County, as does his partner Justin Fritz, a self-described “email marketing manager” who had lived in San Francisco about a year. In a picture one of them posted on social media, they are chestnut-haired, clean-cut white men posing with their dogs, a springer spaniel and an old bulldog. They were walking those dogs when they passed Nieto at a distance.

Fritz did not notice anything unusual but Isgitt saw Nieto moving “nervously” and putting his hand on the Taser in its holster. Snow was gone, so Isgitt had no idea that Nieto had just had an ugly altercation and had reason to be disturbed. Isgitt began telling people he encountered to avoid the area. (One witness who did see Nieto shortly after Isgitt and Fritz, longtime Bernal Heights resident Robin Bullard who was walking his own dog in the park, testified that there was nothing alarming about him. “He was just sitting there,” Bullard said.)

At the trial, Fritz testified that he had not seen anything alarming about Nieto. He said that he called 911 because Isgitt urged him to. At about 7.11pm he began talking to the 911 dispatcher, telling her that there was a man with a black handgun. What race, asked the dispatcher, “black, Hispanic?” “Hispanic,” replied Fritz. Later, the dispatcher asked him if the man in question was doing “anything violent”, and Fritz answered, “just pacing, it looks like he might be eating chips or sunflowers, but he’s resting a hand kind of on the gun”. Alex Nieto had about five more minutes to live.

[…]

On Fruitarians

Alexandra Kleeman in the Guardian (via n+1)
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The Guardian excerpt Alexandra Kleeman’s essay on Fruitarians, forthcoming in issue 21 of n+1

On the second night of the Woodstock fruit festival in upstate New York, long after dinner had been cleared, I stood in the dining hall and waited with other festivalgoers for what was rumoured to be a “fuck ton” of durian, a large, spiky tropical fruit famous for smelling like dung. Thick bass pummelled the air from the rave-style DJ in the corner. It was mid-August, and with the nearness and number of other peoples’ bodies I was overly warm, almost sweating. Beneath the buzz of long fluorescent bulbs, small children limboed under a piece of string to the sloppy clapping of adults, and somewhere in the hall a drum circle stuttered to an entirely different rhythm. It was too bright, too noisy, and everywhere I went there was the slight whiff of fruit-rot, a sweet, sticky smell whose origin was decay.

It was the first of the festival’s many “Sweet Durian Nites”, a dance party that climaxed with the consumption of hundreds and hundreds of ripe durian fruits. The dining hall was packed with exemplars of health and youth and whiteness. There were lean kids in T-shirts and shorts, hippie chicks with rippling hair, sporty-looking guys wearing toe shoes – snug, rubberised foot-gloves that swaddle the foot in hi-tech materials in order to mimic the conditions of running barefoot. Everyone looked comfortable. Everyone had good posture. Everyone was attractive, or more precisely, all the attendees looked so well that I felt like I should be attracted to them. Even the older attendees seemed young: I had the experience many times of walking towards a girl with long hair and skinny legs only to discover up close that she was well over 60.

A narrow-headed man with arms like an action figure introduced himself as Jay and asked if this was my first time trying durian. I told him I’d only had it cooked in puddings or cakes, and he assured me that raw, fresh durian was a completely different thing. He said I’ll go nuts for it, especially if I stuck to a fruitarian diet. “The cleaner you get,” he said, “the more your body craves that sulphur flavour. And you’ll be able to taste more in it – coffee, ice cream, whiskey, lemon. If there’s something you miss eating, durian starts to taste just like it.”

I was first introduced to fruitarianism by a close friend who crashed with me for a weekend in 2012. I opened the door and watched her roll a carry-on suitcase into the entryway, set it down, unzip it, and remove two 40oz plastic containers of red globe grapes, which she rinsed off and consumed in their entirety while standing in the middle of my kitchen. When she was done, she put the spindly grape-skeletons back in their plastic clamshells, and the clamshells back in her suitcase. She had been on a fruit-based diet for just a couple of months, but was already reporting astounding changes: an end to the stomach pains that had troubled her for years; bursting, glowy levels of energy; sharpened concentration; happiness. “I love it,” she told me. “It’s like the whole world is made of delicious, dripping sugar.” Her diet didn’t sound safe, but my friend looked well. She buzzed with intense wellbeing and her skin looked enviably great, although she took frequent naps.

Most faithfully described as a “plant-based raw vegan diet” (the term fruitarian is preferred among practitioners, although only a fraction are on an all-fruit diet), fruitarianism largely adheres to a nutritional regimen known as 80-10-10. This is a high-carb, low-fat diet in which at least 80% of one’s calorie consumption is expected to come from the simple carbohydrates found in fresh fruits and vegetables, with at most 10% each coming from protein and fat. As a point of comparison, the Atkins diet begins with a recommended ratio of 10% carbs, 29% protein, and 65% fat. Because fruits and vegetables naturally contain small amounts of fat and protein, Dr Doug Graham, an unlicensed chiropractor and the man behind 80-10-10, claims that you can thrive on a diet composed entirely of fresh raw fruits, raw leafy greens, and only occasional supplements of nuts or seeds. For a fruitarian, breakfast might be 1lb of kiwi blended with 1lb of orange juice, with 1lb 12oz of peeled bananas wrapped in romaine leaves for lunch, and a three-course dinner consisting of 1lb blended tangerines and pineapple; 1lb of tangerines, celery, and red bell peppers blended into a soup, and a side salad.

This diet is not easy to maintain, but raw fruit experts promise a vast array of benefits. In testimonials, fruitarians claim that going raw has done everything from curing cancer to eliminating body odour and changing the colour of one’s eyes from brown to blue. Unlike other diets, 80-10-10 promises to transform your experience of your body, revealing levels of thriving that you didn’t know existed. In this way, “going raw” breaks with the traditional function of diet as rudimentary medicine (seen even in early Hippocratic medical texts) and becomes a lifestyle. A diet tells you what you should eat; a lifestyle tells you how you should feel about it.

The history of recreational dieting is fairly brief. Until the rise of natural-food communities in the 1970s, it could be argued that for most secular people, diet and lifestyle were imagined as distinct, compartmentalised aspects of daily life. Diets were faddish, seasonal, geared towards achieving a specific goal and then abandoned once they were no longer needed. They were not supposed to rearrange social ties or create new communities, only help you to succeed within your existing community by becoming a slimmer and more attractive version of yourself. From the 1880s onwards, after the discovery of food as a composite of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, most diets emphasised eating the right amount of existing mainstream foods in the right proportion to satisfy nutritional needs. That changed with the leftist utopian food communities of the 1960s and 70s – a precursor to today’s fruitarians – and the age of negative nutrition, which sought to reduce or eliminate foods that had previously been part of a nutritious standard American diet. Negative nutrition spurned sodium, cholesterol, sugar, and fat – and the suspicions it raised about the standard American diet lent momentum to the growing natural foods movement.

In the natural foods movement of the 1960s and 70s, activists and hippies combined diet, politics, and community, to provide a vision of how one could live a life that matched one’s diet. Foods were eliminated not only for health reasons but in order to cultivate a desirable personality – meat-eating, for example, was denounced as an impediment to spiritual growth and a cause of aggressive behaviour. Groups such as The Diggers in San Francisco gave food away for free and popularised wholewheat bread baked in emptied coffee cans as part of a broader experiment in creating a miniature society free from capitalism, while the macrobiotic Zen diet proposed eating your way to enlightenment through 10 different stages, each more restrictive than the last, until the eater reached an apex where she sustained herself on brown rice alone. The fruitarian lifestyle shares the narrative structure of the macrobiotic diet, its emphasis on eliminating toxicity within the body, as well as its ethos of restrictive decadence. Where it differs from macrobiotics is in its fixation on a utopian past. Like those on the nutritionally inverse “paleo” diet, fruitarians eat in hope of returning to a past that predates the primal wound of agrarian society, but whereas paleo dieters hark back to the era when humans were hunter‑gatherers, fruitarians look back to an even earlier time, when we were simply gatherers – equal, undifferentiated, and deeply in harmony with nature.

The War of the Words

Keith Gessen on Amazon vs. Publishers
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Interesting piece in Vanity Fair by n+1 editor Keith Gessen on the Amazon vs. Hachette dispute, and how perceptions of the ‘online mega-store’ are evolving: 

This past year has seen hostilities between Amazon and the publishers, which had been simmering for years, come out into the open, filling many column inches in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, not to mention numerous online forums. The focal point of the dispute has been a tough negotiation between Amazon and the publisher Hachette, with some public sniping between the companies’ executives (who have otherwise kept out of view). Hachette, it should be said, is no slouch: it is owned by the large French media conglomerate Lagardère. The other big publishers are similarly well backed. HarperCollins is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Simon & Schuster is a part of CBS. Macmillan and Penguin Random House are owned, or co-owned, by hefty German corporations. Nonetheless, all the publishers feel bullied by Amazon, and Amazon, in turn, feels misunderstood.

It wasn’t always this way. When Amazon first appeared, in the mid-90s, mailing books out of the Seattle garage of its founder, Jeff Bezos, it was greeted with enthusiasm. The company seemed like a useful counterweight to the big bookstore chains that had come to dominate the book-retailing landscape. In the late 1990s, the large chains, led by Borders and Barnes & Noble, controlled about a quarter of the adult-book market. Their stores were good. They may have lacked individuality, but they made up for it in inventory—a typical Barnes & Noble superstore carried 150,000 titles, making it as alluring, in its way, as the biggest and most famous independent bookstores in America, like Tattered Cover, in Denver, or City Lights, in San Francisco. Now a person on a desolate highway in upstate New York could access all those books, too.

The big chains were good for publishers because they sold so many books, but they were bad for publishers because they used their market power to dictate tough terms and also because they sometimes returned a lot of stock. People also worried about the power of the chains to determine whether a book did well or badly. Barnes & Noble’s lone literary-fiction buyer, Sessalee Hensley, could make (or break) a book with a large order (or a disappointingly small one). If you talked to a publisher in the early 2000s, chances are they would complain to you about the tyranny of Sessalee. No one used her last name; the most influential woman in the book trade did not need one.

The success of Amazon changed all that. It has been said that Amazon got into the book business accidentally—that it might as well have been selling widgets. This isn’t quite right. Books were ideal as an early e-commerce product precisely because when people wanted particular books they knew already what they were getting into. The vast variety of books also allowed an enterprising online retailer to leverage the fact that there was no physical store in a single fixed location to limit its inventory. If a big Barnes & Noble had 150,000 books in stock, Amazon had a million! And if Barnes & Noble had taken its books to lonely highways where previously there had been no bookstores, Amazon was taking books to places where there weren’t even highways. As long as you had a credit card, and the postal service could reach you, you suddenly had the world’s largest bookstore at your fingertips.

Amazon grew quickly. Within a decade, it had become a worthy rival to the chains. As the company sold more books, it sent book publishers more money. What was there not to like?

Voices from Chernobyl

by Svetlana Alexievich
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In 2004, the Paris Review ran an extract from Svetlana Alexievich’s last book to be translated into English (by Keith Gessen), Voices from Chernobyl. It’s an oral history – like all of her books – of the worst nuclear reactor accident in history. 

Philip Gourevitch, who went on to edit the magazine, is a fan:  

Alexievich builds her narratives about Russian national traumas—the Soviet-Afghan war, for instance, or the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe—by interviewing those who lived them, and immersing herself deeply in their testimonies. But her voice is much more than the sum of their voices. The first time many English readers may have encountered her was in the quarterly Granta, under the editorship of Bill Buford, where a piece called “Boys in Zinc” appeared in 1990. (An eponymous book soon followed.) The title is a reference to the zinc coffins in which the Soviet military returned its Afghan war dead to their mothers, and the piece, told from the mothers’ point of view, made that war as all-encompassingly present and personal—as real—as any fictional account ever did for any other war, and with the same singularity and originality of style and passion, of political intelligence and tragic vision.

The extract is available in full on the Paris Review website:  

On April 26, 1986, at 1:23:58 a. m., a series of explosions destroyed the reactor in the building that housed Energy Block #4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. The catastrophe at Chernobyl became the largest technical disaster of the twentieth century. . . . For tiny Belarus (population: ten million), it was a national disaster. . . . Today, one out of every five Belarussians lives on contaminated land. This amounts to 2.1 million people, of whom seven hundred thousand are children. In the Gomel and Mogilev regions, which suffered the most from Chernobyl, mortality rates exceed birthrates by twenty percent.
—Belaruskaya entsiklopedia, 1996, s.v. “Chernobyl,” pg. 24

On April 29, 1986, instruments recorded high levels of radiation in Poland, Germany, Austria, and Romania. On April 30, in Switzerland and northern Italy. On May 1 and second, in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and northern Greece. On May 3, in Israel, Kuwait, and Turkey. . . . Gaseous airborne particles traveled around the globe: on May 2 they were registered in Japan, on May 5 in India, on May 5 and sixth in the U.S. and Canada.
—“The Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident in Belarus”
The Sakharov International College on Radioecology, Minsk, 1992

Lyudmilla Ignatenko Wife of deceased Fireman Vasily Ignatenko

We were newlyweds. We still walked around holding hands, even if we were just going to the store. I would say to him, “I love you.” But I didn’t know then how much. I had no idea . . . We lived in the dormitory of the fire station where he worked. I always knew what was happening—where he was, how he was.

One night I heard a noise. I looked out the window. He saw me. “Close the window and go back to sleep. There’s a fire at the reactor. I’ll be back soon.”

I didn’t see the explosion itself. Just the flames. Everything was radiant. The whole sky. A tall flame. And smoke. The heat was awful. And he still hadn’t come back.

They went off just as they were, in their shirtsleeves. No one told them. They had been called for a fire, that was it.

Seven o’clock in the morning. At seven I was told he was in the hospital. I ran over there‚ but the police had already encircled it, and they weren’t letting anyone through. Only ambulances. The policemen shouted: “The ambulances are radioactive‚ stay away!” I started looking for a friend, she was a doctor at that hospital. I grabbed her white coat when she came out of an ambulance. “Get me inside!” “I can’t. He’s bad. They all are.” I held onto her. “Just to see him!” “All right‚” she said. “Come with me. Just for fifteen or twenty minutes.”

I saw him. He was all swollen and puffed up. You could barely see his eyes.

“He needs milk. Lots of milk‚” my friend said. “They should drink at least three liters each.”

“But he doesn’t like milk.”

“He’ll drink it now.”

Many of the doctors and nurses in that hospital‚ and especially the orderlies‚ would get sick themselves and die. But we didn’t know that then.

At ten‚ the cameraman Shishenok died. He was the first.

I said to my husband, “Vasenka, what should I do?” “Get out of here! Go! You have our child.” I was pregnant. But how could I leave him? He was saying to me: “Go! Leave! Save the baby.” “First I need to bring you some milk, then we’ll decide what to do.” My friend Tanya Kibenok came running in—her husband was in the same room. Her father was with her, he had a car. We got in and drove to the nearest village. We bought a bunch of three-liter bottles, six, so there was enough for everyone. But they started throwing up terribly from the milk.

They kept passing out, they got put on iv. The doctors kept telling them they’d been poisoned by gas, for some reason. No one said anything about radiation.

I couldn’t get into the hospital that evening. There was a sea of people. I stood under his window, he came over and yelled something to me. It was so desperate! Someone in the crowd heard him—they were being taken to Moscow that night. All the wives got together in one group. We decided we’d go with them. “Let us go with our husbands! You have no right!” We punched and we clawed. The soldiers—there were already soldiers—they pushed us back. Then the doctor came out and said they were flying to Moscow, but we needed to bring them their clothing. The clothes they’d worn at the station had been burned. The buses had stopped running already and we ran across the city. We came running back with the bags, but the plane was already gone. They tricked us. So that we wouldn’t be there yelling and crying.

Later in the day I started throwing up. I was six months pregnant, but I had to get to Moscow.

(…)

Sam Knight on the Theft of the World’s Rarest Water Lily

In the Guardian's new 'Long Read' section
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Last month the Guardian started a ‘Long Read’ section, giving prominent writers, essayists and other public figures space to write longform pieces, with the depth and breadth of analysis you no longer find in broadsheets. Thus far, highlights have included Pankaj Mishra on the failure of the ‘Western model’, and John Gray on the nature of evil.

‘The Long Read’ is also going to give space to longform investigative journalism, which is very good news indeed considering that this is a form that seems to be dying out (at least in Britain). This week they’ve published Sam Knight’s piece on the theft of the world’s rarest water lily at Kew Gardens: 

The Princess of Wales Conservatory is what staff at Kew Gardens call a honeypot. The world’s largest and most prestigious botanical garden, Kew receives 2 million visitors each year, and a huge proportion of these, perhaps 30,000 a week, make sure they see the conservatory, a large armadillo-like structure near the eastern gates. Built in 1986, the glasshouse has climate controls that allow it to contain 10 plant habitats under a single roof. In the space of a few minutes, visitors can examine ghostly, egg-shaped cacti in the desert cool; tumbling red Passiflora in the heat of the forest; and the fibrous mangroves of a swamp. On any given morning, squads of children, dressed in yellow high-visibility jackets, trek among the lurid, flowering bromeliads and tropical leaves the size of pillowcases, and squeal at beetles that skitter out on to the walkway.

Shortly after two o’clock on the afternoon of Thursday, January 9, Nick Johnson, the 43-year-old manager of the conservatory, returned to Kew after spending the morning at a school in east London. Johnson, a trim man with a short beard, had left his team preparing the glasshouse for the gardens’ annual orchid festival. The exhibition is a big deal at Kew. Orchids are the world’s largest group of flowering plants, and their devotees, known as orchidophiles, are among the most eager and best-organised plant enthusiasts. Around 120,000 come to the festival each winter, and a good show, and positive press coverage, can boost visitor numbers at Kew for the rest of the year.

The theme for this year was “Plant Hunters”, and Johnson’s staff were dressing half the conservatory to evoke the high romance of Victorian botanical adventuring, a time when avid collectors and the best scientists (there was little distinction between the two) set off for distant jungles armed with cutlasses and a year’s supply of tobacco. The temporary display included a period botanist’s campsite, complete with pith helmets and wicker baskets, and a cascade of fuchsia and cream vandas.

It was an unusually warm January day. Johnson couldn’t wait to take off his winter coat. But as soon as he walked into the glasshouse, he ran into Duncan Brokensha, an apprentice on his team. Brokensha was agitated. Amid the festival preparations, he had carried out a routine inspection of the water levels in the ponds. As usual, he had also checked on the rarest, and most endangered, plant in the glasshouse, the Nymphaea thermarum, which is the smallest water lily in the world. Unlike some of the valuable orchids and cacti in the conservatory, which are kept behind glass screens, the tiny water lilies, whose white flowers measure less than 1cm across, were on open display, albeit in a relatively inaccessible position near the foot of a concrete bridge. There were 24 planted out in the mud. Today, Brokensha counted 23 – and a hole where the 24th had been.

The plant had been stolen. Johnson was furious. Mainly with himself: he had decided, the previous spring, to plant the water lily in the glasshouse. At the time, Kew possessed virtually the entire planet’s population of Nymphaea thermarum. The water lily had not been seen in its only known location in the wild, a thermal hot spring in Rwanda, since 2008, and it was one of around 100 plant species that now only survive in botanical gardens, on the very edge of extinction. Johnson had known the risks of putting such a scarce, and delicate, species on public view. People swipe the occasional flower and cutting from botanical gardens – they always have.

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