Archive For June 28, 2020
Sacha Baron Cohen, pictured at the Emmy Awards in 2019, is suspected of being behind a prank on a far-right group.
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
To put it plainly, Matt Marshall was duped.
“Yeah. I mean. It was a miss,” Marshall said by phone, with a sigh.
Marshall, 36, is the founder and former leader of the Washington Three Percent, which is aligned with the far-right Patriot and militia movement. On Saturday, he was the emcee at a rally in Olympia called March for Our Rights 3, a gathering of “constitutionalist” factions that extremism trackers put in the anti-government category.
The event’s disastrous ending — a racist singalong seemingly staged by prankster Sacha Baron Cohen — went viral over the weekend. The apparent infiltration was the latest salvo in the culture war, one of the endless “owns” of the other side. Leftists in Seattle trolled with glee; they’ve never bought into the militia makeover. The Western States Center, an Oregon-based watchdog that repeatedly has warned of the anti-government threat, said it had no information on the stunt, but “found it amusing.”
For Marshall, who’s running for state legislature, it was a reminder of the obstacles he and other Patriot Movement leaders face as they try to carve a path into the mainstream.
“It was just kind of a kick in the teeth,” he said.
For years, Marshall has tried to convince his critics that he and the Three Percenters reject racist ideologies like white nationalism. So it was encouraging, he said, to learn of a California-based group, Back To Work USA, that was helping conservatives to get their message out in blue states.
Marshall said the group had popped up out of nowhere a week before the rally, and offered to pay for everything. A stage adorned with balloons. A security team. And an impressive headliner: country legend Larry Gatlin of the Gatlin Brothers. Marshall provided NPR with the group’s correspondence; the logo shows an idealized image of an American worker.
“We have some great ideas that we would like to pass by you and we are so excited about what you’re doing!” read one purported Back To Work USA email that offered help for the rally.
Marshall said he and the other organizers asked themselves, “Is it too good to be true?” but were reassured when Back To Work USA plunked down the money for portable toilets and other necessities. Marshall estimated total costs to be in the $50,000 range; the money was paid directly to vendors, not the rally organizers.
“I mean, they played the game,” Marshall said. “We talked to them about how frustrating it was to be labeled racist, and they agreed with us. Like, we really let the guard down and trusted them.”
On Saturday, the rally started off according to plan. Then, Marshall said, organizers learned that another band had been added at the last minute. A bluegrass act. Marshall and his buddies were too busy setting up to vet the new performer. Besides, the sponsors had come through with Gatlin as well as a local band that was confirmed as legit.
“It all looked like it was playing out, checking out,” Marshall said.
But then the new singer stepped onstage and it became clear that something was off.
“A guy that’s like wearing almost a clown suit of red, white and blue gets up there,” Marshall said. “Obvious disguise. Like a fake nose and chin. And he starts playing and the first thought when you hear his voice is, ‘Dude, is this like a bad impression of Borat?’ ”
Marshall watched as the guy in overalls belted out racist and anti-Semitic lyrics about politics and the pandemic. Even worse, some members of the audience were joining in. Photos on Marshall’s Facebook page show several people in the crowd that appear to be filming audience reactions with concealed cameras and earpieces.
Marshall and his friends tried to rush the stage and cut the mic but they were stopped by the security guards the newfound sponsor had hired. Marshall was fuming.
“This is my event!” Marshall recalled thinking. “He’s not going to turn my event into a racist spectacle!”
After a physical struggle between the Three Percenters and the guards, Marshall said, the production crew vanished. The performer, the sponsors, the band all fled to waiting cars, Marshall said. He found himself alone on stage with a visibly shocked Larry Gatlin.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Um, I thought I was coming to a Republican Second Amendment rally,’ ” Marshall said. “I said, ‘You did come to one. Somebody’s trying to hijack it. I don’t know what’s going on.’ “
What seems to have been going on is a sophisticated prank. Photos, videos and tweets from witnesses suggest it’s the work of Sacha Baron Cohen, the comedian behind the “Borat” character. He’s also known for tricking conservatives into embarrassing situations for his TV show, Who Is America?
A representative for Baron Cohen didn’t respond to a request for comment Sunday. Apart from one press release, there’s little online to suggest Back To Work USA is a real organization. Calls to the number on the email went to voicemail.
Marshall said there’s no doubt it’s bogus.
“Somebody just spent a whole lot of money trying to set us up,” he said.
Marshall acknowledged that some audience members sang along with the mystery performer, even to lines that were blatantly racist and anti-Semitic.
“It’s sad, it’s unfortunate that some people chanted back,” he said.
But he also pointed to footage showing a Jewish member of the Washington Three Percent grabbing a bullhorn and trying to drown out the performance. Marshall said he estimates that half the crowd left when they heard the lyrics.
It was only after the episode, Marshall said, that he saw the photos and heard witness accounts that pointed to Sacha Baron Cohen as the culprit. He wasn’t impressed.
“I know who he is, but I never followed him,” Marshall said. “I never even watched Borat all the way through because I couldn’t stand it.”
Thailand has been relatively successful at containing the spread of the coronavirus. Many say it’s due in no small part to Thailand’s universal health care system.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Thailand was the first country outside of China to confirm a case of coronavirus. That was back in January. Since then, while the pandemic has raged in the U.S. and Europe, Thailand has been able to control its epidemic with a caseload among the lowest in the world – just 58 deaths. Thai epidemiologists say the country’s universal health care system played a major role. NPR’s Malaka Gharib has more.
MALAKA GHARIB, BYLINE: To explain how Thailand’s Health System worked to keep the coronavirus under control, let’s start with the first Thai citizen to test positive for the virus, a taxi driver. Krit Pongpirul is a professor at Chulalongkorn University Faculty of Medicine. He says the driver’s route involved picking up and dropping off Chinese tourists around Bangkok.
KRIT PONGPIRUL: This particular taxi driver – he’s 51 years old of age. He had fever. He had coughing.
GHARIB: Pongpirul says the taxi driver went to his primary care doctor at a clinic that is part of the country’s universal health care system. For nearly two decades, health care has been free, paid for by the government through taxes.
PONGPIRUL: He got a physical exam and did some testing, including the influenza swab test.
GHARIB: He tested negative, and his doctor sent him home with some meds. Still, his symptoms did not improve. Eventually, he decided to go to the hospital. Health care workers there suspected COVID, and they referred him to an infectious disease institute.
PONGPIRUL: And we performed a COVID-19 specific test.
GHARIB: Now, Thailand takes infectious diseases seriously. It has a communicable disease control unit with more than a thousand teams investigating outbreaks. So when the taxi driver came in for a test, he got not one but two. Both were positive. Once authorities learned of his diagnosis, they tested his family and the health care workers who’d been in contact with him.
Dr. Tanarak Plipat is the deputy chief of Thailand’s Department of Disease Control. He says they acted aggressively because they had to. For the size of its population, nearly 70 million, Thailand doesn’t have enough medical doctors or hospital beds.
TANARAK PLIPAT: We knew our limitation, and we know that we have to protect those health system as best as we can. We cannot allow an outbreak to happen.
GHARIB: That’s where the universal health care came into play. Dr. Pongpirul says the fact that the taxi driver sought medical attention early on, that he wasn’t put off by having to pay for something he couldn’t have afforded, made a huge difference in helping them control the virus.
PONGPIRUL: That means you get early diagnosis, and that means you get early warning to yourself, to warn yourself not to spread the disease to others.
GHARIB: Boston University sociologist Joseph Harris says much of the country’s success with COVID can be chalked up to Thailand’s health care system. He wants people to know Thailand’s system isn’t just good – it’s exceptional.
JOSEPH HARRIS: Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate, has called it a model for the industrialized world, particularly for parts of Asia. You know, it’s a model that countries around the world have sought to learn from.
GHARIB: Harris says Thailand has also invested heavily in public health. The country has a network of 1 million community health workers. Tanarak Plipat of Thailand’s Department of Disease Control says these volunteers did a lot of the legwork in carrying out its COVID strategy.
PLIPAT: We utilize them well. We use our health workers to be our means for doing quarantine as well as contact tracing.
GHARIB: Dr. Plipat thinks that so far, Thailand has done a, quote, “very good job of controlling the virus.” What’s next? Plipat says rooting out any last pockets of infection before they become another outbreak.
Malaka Gharib, NPR News, Washington.
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Beyoncé, who voiced the character of Nala in last year’s animated remake of The Lion King, is releasing a visual album based off the music from its accompanying soundtrack. Black Is King will premiere on Disney+ at the end of July.
Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP
Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP
A new visual album written, directed and executive produced by Beyoncé is on its way.
Black Is King will celebrate Black resilience and culture, and premiere globally on Disney+ on July 31, according to a press release. The album is based on the music of The Lion King: The Gift, the Beyoncé-curated soundtrack album for the Lion King animated remake released last July, in which she voiced the character of Nala.
“The visual album from Beyoncé reimagines the lessons of The Lion King for today’s young kings and queens in search of their own crowns,” reads the statementfrom Disney and from Beyoncé’s company, Parkwood Entertainment.
The film, which was in production for one year, will star the album’s featured artists as well as special guest appearances. A minute-long teaser video is available on Beyoncé’s website.
The press release says the album honors the voyages of Black families throughout time, and tells the story of a young king’s journey through betrayal, love and self-identity. Guided by his ancestors, father and childhood love, he earns the virtues needed to reclaim his “home and throne.”
“These timeless lessons are revealed and reflected through Black voices of today, now sitting in their own power,” it reads. Black Is King “is an affirmation of a grand purpose, with lush visuals that celebrate Black resilience and culture. The film highlights the beauty of tradition and Black excellence.”
The announcement comes on the heels of Beyoncé’s latest surprise, a single called “Black Parade” that she released on Juneteenth. She announced on her website that proceeds from the song will benefit Black-owned small businesses in need through her BeyGOOD initiative.
“Black excellence is a form of protest,” the post said. “Black joy is your right.”
President Trump denied Sunday that he’d ever been briefed on bounties Russia reportedly offered to Taliban-linked fighters to kill coalition forces in Afghanistan.
President Trump is denying a New York Times report that he was briefed on an alleged Russian effort to pay bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill Western forces — including U.S. troops — in Afghanistan.
Citing unnamed officials, the Times report, published Friday, details how U.S. intelligence officials reached the conclusion about the secret payments and then briefed the president in March. The White House National Security Council conferred an inter-agency meeting that same month to discuss the matter, according to the report. The finding was also included in the President’s Daily Brief, according to the Times.
President Trump denied the report in a series of tweets on Sunday, saying he was never briefed on the intelligence assessment.
“Nobody briefed or told me, @VP Pence, or Chief of Staff @MarkMeadows about the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians, as reported through an “anonymous source” by the Fake News @nytimes Everybody is denying it & there have not been many attacks on us….,” Trump said.
…Nobody’s been tougher on Russia than the Trump Administration. With Corrupt Joe Biden & Obama, Russia had a field day, taking over important parts of Ukraine – Where’s Hunter? Probably just another phony Times hit job, just like their failed Russia Hoax. Who is their “source”?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 28, 2020
The president followed-up the denial by saying “Nobody’s been tougher on Russia than the Trump Administration.” He went on to criticize former President Obama, the Times, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
“With Corrupt Joe Biden & Obama, Russia had a field day, taking over important parts of Ukraine – Where’s Hunter? Probably just another phony Times hit job, just like their failed Russia Hoax. Who is their ‘source’?” Trump tweeted.
The White House denied on Saturday that the president had been briefed on the matter, but as the Times notes, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany did not push back on the substance of the intelligence assessment.
A statement Saturday by John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, also denied that the president was briefed on the issue, but also did not refute that Russia had offerred bounties in exchange for attacks on U.S. forces.
The Times, in its reporting, does not specify how many troops may have been killed by insurgents seeking monetary reward, but does say officials were confident that Russian operatives offered and paid bounties to militants for killing Americans. In a separate report by CNN, an unnamed European intelligence official said Russia also offered bounties for the killing of soldiers from the U.K.
According to the Times, U.S. officials have concluded that the bounty operation was orchestrated by the G.R.U., an arm of Russian military intelligence that has been linked to assassination attempts and other cloak and dagger operations, including the 2018 nerve agent poisoning of a former Russian spy in Salisbury, England.
The G.R.U. is the same unit that U.S. intelligence has implicated in efforts to sway the 2016 presidential election.
The Russian embassy in Washington denied the Times report in a tweet on Saturday, calling the report “fake news.” A spokesman for the Taliban told the newspaper the report was “baseless.”
Critics of President Trump called the reporting further evidence that the president has failed to adequately curb the influence of Russia, and instead sought to foster a cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Speaking from a virtual town hall on Saturday, former Vice President Biden said that if the the story was correct, then it was a betrayal to U.S. forces to fail to protect them in a war zone.
“Not only has he failed to sanction or impose any kind of consequences on Russia for this egregious violation of international law, Donald Trump has continued his embarrassing campaign of deference and debasing himself before Vladimir Putin,” Biden said.
In another tweet Sunday, Trump responded by calling his likely 2020 opponent corrupt and his comments on the Times story, “obviously written by his handlers.”
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has made Rio de Janeiro’s famed Maracana soccer stadium a field for his battle to reopen the country despite the mounting coronavirus caseload and deaths.
The flag of the state of Mississippi flies in front of the Mississippi State Capitol dome on Jan. 10, 2019. Lawmakers have cleared the way for legislation to remove and replace the flag.
Brandon Dill/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Brandon Dill/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Lawmakers in Mississippi cleared the way to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag on Saturday.
The state House and Senate both approved a resolution to suspend legislative deadlines and introduce a bill to have a commission redesign the 126-year-old state flag. Debate on that is expected on Sunday and it’s expected to pass.
Republican Gov. Tate Reeves says he’ll sign it into law.
“The argument over the 1894 flag has become as divisive as the flag itself and it’s time to end it,” Reeves wrote in a Facebook post on Saturday. “If they send me a bill this weekend, I will sign it.”
Reeves had long opposed the idea of changing the state symbol, which bears the Confederate battle flag at the top left corner, unless it was voted on by Mississippians. In 2001, voters in the state had just that chance, but they ultimately voted to keep the flag as it was designed.
“By changing our flag, we don’t abandon our founding principles,” Republican Speaker Pro Tempore Jason White said ahead of the vote, according to The Washington Post. “We embrace them more fully by doing what is right. We’re not moving further away from our Founding Fathers’ visions. We’re moving closer to them. We’re not destroying our heritage; we’re fulfilling it.”
The resolution calls for the immediate removal of the current flag and for a commission to design a new flag in which all Confederate symbols will be removed and the words “In God We Trust” will be added. The new design will be put to a public vote in November. If voters reject it, the commission will try again.
“Change is hard,” Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn said on Saturday, according to the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger. “People are going to resist initially, but I think over time it’s going to be proven that this was the right decision. We’re poised to reach our full potential now.”
It comes as Confederate monuments of all kinds are being banned, removed and transformed across the nation after protests and demonstrations erupted in response to systemic racism against Black Americans. NASCAR banned the Confederate flag at all of its events, protesters toppled a statue of Confederate Gen. Albert Pike in Washington, D.C., artists and demonstrators transformed a Confederate monument in Richmond, Va., and members of Congress have proposed renaming Army installations with Confederate names and removing Confederate symbols.
“We should not be under any illusion that a vote in the Capitol is the end of what must be done — the job before us is to bring the state together and I intend to work night and day to do it,” Reeves wrote on Facebook on Saturday.
“It will be harder than recovering from tornadoes, harder than historic floods, harder than agency corruption, or prison riots or the coming hurricane season — even harder than battling the Coronavirus.”