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Dozens Of Girls Abducted In Nigeria; Militants Blamed

Apr 16, 2014

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Soldiers, "vigilantes and volunteers," CNN writes, are searching for about 100 Nigerian schoolgirls who are reportedly in the hands of the militant Islamist group Boko Haram.

The students, along with about 100 other girls, were grabbed by Boko Haram gunmen on Monday in the northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok after a firefight with guards at their school. The Associated Press says one soldier and a police officer died in the battle.

The Daily Post, a Nigerian online newspaper, reports that at least 80 girls either escaped or were rescued on Tuesday when the truck they were being transported in broke down.

As Voice of America notes:

"There has been no claim of responsibility for the attack or the kidnapping. [But] the assault is similar to others carried out by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, which is blamed for scores of attacks and thousands of deaths since launching an insurgency in 2009.

"The group, whose name means 'Western education is a sin,' wants to impose strict Islamic law on northern Nigeria."

Boko Haram is also being blamed for a deadly attack Monday near Nigeria's capital, Abuja. More than 70 people were killed and dozens more injured when a bomb went off at a bus station. The explosion set off other blasts as vehicles in the vicinity burned.

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An Iraqi security officer patrols the grounds at Baghdad Central Prison in Abu Ghraib, in 2009. (Getty Images)

Iraq's Infamous Abu Ghraib Prison Temporarily Closed

Apr 16, 2014

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Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison that became the center of 2004 prison-abuse scandal during the U.S. occupation, is being closed temporarily due to security concerns, according to the country's Justice Ministry.

The infamous prison, located on the outskirts of Bagdad near Sunni-dominated Anbar province, is being temporarily shut due to fears it could be overrun by Sunni insurgents, according to The New York Times.

The area "sees frequent clashes between an al-Qaida-splinter group, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, and government forces and their Sunni tribal militias," The Associated Press reports.

"The ministry of justice announced the complete closure of Baghdad central prison, previously Abu Ghraib, and the removal of the inmates in co-operation with the ministries of defence and justice," Justice Minister Hassan al-Shimmari said in a statement.

"The ministry took this decision as part of precautionary measures related to the security of prisons," Shimmari said, adding that Abu Ghraib was "in a hot area."

The Justice Ministry says it's moved 2,400 prisoners arrested or sentenced on terrorism-related charges to other high-security prisons in the country's north and central regions in a move the Times says underscores "the rapid deterioration of security in Iraq since the beginning of the year, when insurgents captured Falluja, a short drive from the prison, from which hundreds of inmates escaped last year."

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Washington Post writer Eli Saslow won a Pulitzer Prize for his series on the prevalence of food stamps in post-recession America. (AP)

Revisiting Pulitzer Nominees That Touch On Issues Of Race

Apr 16, 2014

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This week, Columbia University handed out the Pulitzer Prizes, which are widely considered among the highest honors in journalism. The occasion gives us a good excuse to shout-out some of the finalists and winning entries that touch on issues of race and culture. (Fair warning: these stories are very good journalism done in the service of illuminating some deeply dispiriting realities.)

Speak No Evil

The Chattanooga Times Free Press project "Speak No Evil" — a finalist for the Local Reporting category — delved into the one of the River City's most vexing dilemmas: the way dangerous criminals go unprosecuted and homicide cases go unsolved because witnesses don't come forward. The reporting team found families of victims struggling to find closure for their loved ones' killings who had declined to speak even when the identity of their attackers was an open secret in their neighborhoods. And they found cases of repeat offenders whose violence seemed to escalate as they skirted prison time.

"Police think gangsters are irrational, that the neighbors stopped calling with tips because they lost their moral compass," Joan Garrett McClane wrote. But the reality she and her colleagues found was far more complicated. The city's aggressive policing of black neighborhoods made law-abiding citizens feel that they were being targeted by the police. After a few high-profile, racially charged incidents of apparent police brutality, the community's faith in the police force had completely eroded. And since the city had no resources to protect witnesses, there was a very real threat that cooperating with the police or prosecutors could put witnesses in mortal danger.

"I know who stole my chain. I know who robbed my house. I know who hit my sister. Rather than calling 911, people are resorting to private violence," David Kennedy, the noted Harvard criminologist, told the Times Free Press. "When the young man knows who killed his friend, he doesn't think the police are on his side."

There are lots of fascinating, unsettling things intersecting in the Times Free Press story, which is a great introduction to these issues as they play out across the country. It's worth a read — particularly the first of its three chapters.

The Child Exchange

Megan Twohey's expose for Reuters — a finalist for the Investigative Reporting category — zeroed on a disturbing shadow economy in which parents who've adopted children from overseas go online to offer their children to new caretakers after they decide they can no longer handle raising them. Some of the children have special physical needs or psychological challenges that compound the significant challenges of navigating a new culture. These "rehomings" are done outside of official channels and with no oversight, making the children moved around this way especially vulnerable to exploitation.

Americans have adopted about 243,000 children from other countries since the late 1990s. But unlike parents who take in American-born children through the U.S. foster-care system, many adults adopting from overseas receive little or no training. It isn't unusual for the children they bring home to have undisclosed physical, emotional or behavioral problems.

No authority tracks what happens after a child is brought to America, so no one knows how often international adoptions fail. The U.S. government estimates that domestic adoptions fail at a rate ranging from "about 10 to 25 percent." If international adoptions fail with about the same frequency, then more than 24,000 foreign adoptees are no longer with the parents who brought them to the United States. Some experts say the percentage could be higher given the lack of support for those parents.

Twohey writes that there are no local, state or federal laws overseeing this practice, and the State Department doesn't keep track of the statistics. The state of affairs troubles child welfare advocates and officials in the countries where many children come from.

The investigation highlights the story of Quita Puchalla, a Liberian girl who was first adopted by a Wisconsin couple before being "rehomed" with an Illinois couple: Nicole and Calvin Eason. As this list from Twohey's report indicates, the Easons had quite a history:

  • Child welfare authorities had taken away both of Nicole Eason's biological children years earlier. After a sheriff's deputy helped remove the Easons' second child, a newborn baby boy, the deputy wrote in his report that the "parents have severe psychiatric problems as well with violent tendencies."
  • The Easons each had been accused by children they were babysitting of sexual abuse, police reports show. They say they did nothing wrong, and neither was charged.
  • The only official document attesting to their parenting skills - one purportedly drafted by a social worker who had inspected the Easons' home - was fake, created by the Easons themselves.

The Reuters investigation details six previous incidents in which Nicole Eason had taken in children this way, surfing Internet forums under the screen name "Big Momma." In one incident, Eason picked up a child in a hotel parking lot just off the highway. The man who went with her to get the 10-year-old boy she was picking up would later be sentenced to federal prison. His crime: trading child pornography.

Waiting for the 8th

The Washington Post's Eli Saslow won the Pulitzer for Explanatory Reporting for his series on the prevalence of America's food stamp economy at a time of deep cuts to the federal antihunger program. One entry zoomed in on the city of Woonsocket, R.I., where one-third of the population received food stamp benefits. Woonsocket's economy stirred to life each month like clockwork around the time when food stamp benefits were disbursed.

The son of a grocer in the Dominican Republic, [Miguel] Pichardo had immigrated to the United States in the 1980s because he expected everyone to have money — "a country of customers," he had thought. He settled in Rhode Island with his brother, and together they opened a series of small supermarkets. He framed his first three $5s, his first three $20s and his first three $100s, the green bills lining a wall behind his register. But now he rarely dealt in cash, and he had built a plexiglass partition in front of the register to discourage his most desperate customers from coming after those framed bills when their EBT cards ran dry. The local unemployment rate was 12 percent. The shuttered textile mills along the river had become Section 8 housing. The median income had dropped by $10,000 in the last decade ...

Pichardo had placed a $10,000 product order to satisfy his diverse customers, half of them white, a quarter Hispanic, 15 percent African-American, plus a dozen immigrant populations drawn to Woonsocket by the promise of cheap housing. He had ordered 150 pounds of the tenderloin steak favored by the newly poor, still clinging to old habits; and 200 cases of chicken gizzards for the inter-generationally poor, savvy enough to spot a deal at less than $2 a pound. He had bought pizza pockets for the working poor and plantains for the immigrant poor. He had stocked up on East African marinades, Spanish rice, Cuban snacks and Mexican fruit juice. The boxes piled up in the aisles and the whir of an electronic butcher's knife reverberated from the back of the store.

Saslow also told the story of Raphael Robinson, a D.C. resident whose family relied on the program, even as Robinson vowed to get off of it. Her family's routine plays like the story of Woonsocket in miniature, a monthly cycle of boom and bust. "The family's refrigerator is usually dark and barren by the time the 8th arrives," he writes. "But then their food stamps come through and they head to the grocery to stock up."

So many of our conversations about poverty —- and government antipoverty programs in particular —- tend to be racially coded. Saslow's explorations are a different spin on the demographics of the welfare economy than we often see, and go a long way toward humanizing that economy's many players.

The Internal Enemy

The way Americans tell our story is as a steady march of expanding liberty, and particularly in the early days of the Republic, as a challenge to the idea of a nation-state ruled by nobles and sovereigns. But to the enslaved Africans in America at the time, the new America was their oppressor and jailer. Alan Taylor's The Internal Enemy, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History, tells the little-known story of 3,000 enslaved Africans who escaped from Virginia and fought the War of 1812 alongside the British against the Americans.

"It was an extraordinary set of human dramas, the resourcefulness of people who were seeking freedom, stealing boats in the middle of the night to go out and find British warships and offer their services," said Taylor, a historian at the University of Virginia.

The defection of thousands of slaves led many in Virginia's planter class to worry that they were presiding over an enslaved population that might revolt at any moment.

Taylor tells the stories of families who escaped to freedom by aligning themselves with the British, and argues that the American victory in 1812 laid the groundwork for the sectional divisions that eventually came to a head during the Civil War half a century later.

A Dreadful Deceit

Jacqueline Jones' book on the construction of the concept of race in America was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History. Jones recounts the lives of six people who have lived at different times in American history who have been mostly overlooked but whose lives illustrate the way race has been used as a tool for exploitation.

One of those lives is the story of Eleanor Eldridge, a black woman who amassed a good deal of wealth in the 1800s. Her success might have flown in the face of the prevailing stereotypes of blacks as indigent and lazy. But as Jones told our colleague Rachel Martin last year, Eldridge was instead seen as a threat by whites in her Rhode Island community:

Eleanor Eldridge was a very savvy businesswoman, an investor, and at times she overextended herself in terms of buying real estate. And then she found herself victimized by creditors who went after her and compliant judges and sheriffs who repossessed her property. However, she fought back in a very dramatic way. She had a large number of employers who were her patrons and were willing to vouch for her in court, willing to help her pay for legal defense. And in the process, she managed to continue to thrive. But one of the ironies here is that one of the stereotypes also at the time held that black people were predatory, that they would not rest until they had taken jobs from white people. Well, these are very contradictory notions. But this episode, I think, reminds us that these racial mythologies are contradictory and they can be very malleable to suit the times.

What were some of your favorite stories about race, ethnicity and culture from news outlets over the last year? (Not counting the ones from Code Switch, of course.) Tell us below in the comments.

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Cheryl Miller's driver's license was among the evidence collected from the car she and Pamela Jackson were last seen in. The two South Dakota girls disappeared in 1971. Now, authorities say it appears they accidentally drove into a creek. It wasn't until last year that low waters revealed the vehicle. (AP)

43-Year-Old Cold Case Closed: South Dakota Girls Died In Accident

Apr 16, 2014

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Families and friends who have wondered since 1971 about what happened to two South Dakota girls now have some closure.

Authorities said Tuesday that they believe Pamela Jackson and Cheryl Miller died when their 1960 Studebaker Lark accidentally went off a gravel road and into a local creek. "All the evidence would appear to indicate an accident," South Dakota Attorney Gen. Marty Jackley said.

Among the clues, according to Sioux Falls' Argus Leader: The car "was in third gear, with the keys in the ignition and the lights on. One tire was damaged. ... Miller's purse was found, Jackley said. Inside it was her license, notes from classmates and photographs."

The girls had been on their way to a party that teens were having at a gravel pit. Their car wasn't discovered until last September, when low waters in the creek revealed the rusted wreck.

The Sioux City Journal adds that:

"The car did not contain any evidence, such as cans or bottles, that alcohol was involved. Based on witness accounts, the girls, who visited Miller's grandmother in the hospital in Vermillion, then met up with friends and followed them to Alcester, wouldn't have had time to stop along the way, Jackley said. ...

"The bridge was new, which might have confused the girls. One of the Studebaker's tires was damaged, but officials don't know if that happened before or after the crash. ...

"Classmates thought the girls were behind them but lost sight of the Studebaker. 'They had indicated they were being followed by the girls (and) that at one point they had missed the turn and then they looked back and the girls had vanished,' Jackley said.

"An extensive search of the area didn't reveal anything, and their families were left to agonize about what may have befallen them. The case confounded local law enforcement."

At one point in 2007, as we have reported, a man was indicted on murder charges related to the girls' deaths. But the charges were dropped when investigators determined that a recording of the suspect's alleged jail-house confession had been faked by another inmate.

Both Jackson and Miller, who has also been referred to in news accounts as Sherri, were 17 years old. They were students at Vermillion High School.

Last September's discovery of the Studebaker, which had apparently been submerged in the creek's waters for more than four decades, came one week after a similar story from Custer County, Okla. There, as we wrote, "sheriffs' deputies who were testing a new sonar device on a lake in western Oklahoma's Custer County [came] across two grim discoveries." They found two cars in Foss Lake — each with three bodies inside. One vehicle and its adult occupants had been missing since 1969. The other vehicle and the three teenagers inside disappeared in 1970.

Authorities are still trying to determine how those vehicles ended up in that lake.

After the grim discoveries in Oklahoma, we looked at the use of side-scan sonar to reveal "what's lurking in your lake."

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Rodrigo y Gabriela in a scene from their new video for the song "The Russian Messenger." (Courtesy of the artist)

Rodrigo y Gabriela, 'The Russian Messenger'

Apr 16, 2014

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The video for "The Messenger" was shot at at Rodrigo y Gabriela's home studio in Zihuatanejo, in southern Mexico, shortly after they completed their upcoming album 9 Dead Alive. It's meant to depict what it was like making the album, with Rodrigo and Gabriela, eye-to-eye in a studio and limited production. The intimate performance is the perfect showcase for their phenomenal guitar playing.

9 Dead Alive is out on April 29 on ATO Records.

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