The Voices Behind the Clash at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When Alexis Johnson, an African-American journalist based in Pittsburgh, was barred from reporting on the Black Lives Matter protests in her hometown by her employer, it created a whole new uprising. She was told by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that a tweet she sent comparing damages from protests to damages from a Kenny Chesney concert evinced bias that would compromise her reporting. More than 100 of her Post-Gazette co-workers disagreed and tweeted #IStandWithAlexis, including Michael Santiago, a Dominican photojournalist with the paper who usually covers protests. For that, he and the other reporters who pledged support for Johnson were also forbidden from covering anything protest-related.

Michael Fuoco, president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, says her tweet was “benign” and “innocuous” and has rallied the Guild to Johnson’s defense. This week, the Guild called on advertisers to “exert pressure” on the Post-Gazette to show their disapproval. And so far, it seems to be working:

  • The Allegheny Conference on Community Development, which sets the economic agenda for the greater Pittsburgh region, released a statement saying the Post-Gazette demonstrates “not only a failure in journalistic leadership, but also a deep insensitivity to the historical moment we are experiencing.”
  • The Pittsburgh Foundation, one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the region, announced it was “pulling advertising commitments and upcoming promotional relationships” with the Post-Gazette.
  • Giant Eagle, the largest grocery store chain in Western Pennsylvania, announced yesterday that they would stop selling the newspaper in its stores.

Here’s some of what Johnson had to say about the incident in a June 8 press conference:

None of you should be here today. We should all be covering one of the biggest moments of our generation. Instead, we’re here talking about another issue of racism, diversity and discrimination on another level. I was just very upset and frustrated when I was told that I was taken off of coverage of the protests because of a tweet, that I thought was funny, that I thought was clever, that I thought was food for thought. I was told that I violated our social media policy, which in fact doesn’t exist. They’re just a set of guidelines that the Guild never agreed to.

Yesterday, Post-Gazette executive editor Keith C. Burris penned an editorial arguing that Johnson’s protest coverage ban had nothing to do with her race, and doubling down on the idea that her tweet exhibited bias — but without explaining what the bias was toward or against.

“[N]o fair person could make the case that our actions were race-based. And we will not apologize for upholding professional standards in journalism or attempting to eliminate bias,” Burris wrote in defense of the newspaper. He did not respond to a CityLab request for an interview.

CityLab did speak with Johnson, Santiago, and Newspaper Guild President Fuoco about not just the controversy, but also the pressure of multiple racial shocks to their physical and mental well-being. We also spoke with Tereneh Idia, an award-winning black journalist for the Pittsburgh City Paper who regularly writes about how racism manifests not only in the media landscape, but throughout the city at large.

Idia’s voice was also lost for a moment when the City Paper had to suspend her column because they couldn’t pay her — the coronavirus pandemic crippled the alt-weekly’s finances such that they had to pause assigning work to contributing writers and freelancers. City Paper has since obtained a media grant, which would allow Idia to write again. But for the past few weeks, Pittsburgh was short yet another black voice during one of the most critical times in the city’s history.

Alexis Johnson, Post-Gazette reporter

Alexis Johnson (Shantale Davis)

Given all that’s going on — George Floyd, the protests, the pandemic, your collision with the Post-Gazette — how are you doing mentally and emotionally?

I’m overwhelmed. It’s not something I feel like experiencing. I’d rather be out there doing my job. But I’m super happy people are supporting me and validating my feelings when I felt I was being treated unfairly. It’s helping me feel seen and heard. I’m overwhelmingly grateful for all the support, but also frustrated that this is happening, that I became the story.

What were your expectations for your role at the Post-Gazette when you first started there two years ago and what are the expectations for your role now as you understand it?

In October 2018 I came to Pittsburgh to work at the Post-Gazette as its digital news editor. I later moved from the web team to a reporter role [at my own request] to cover viral, trending news — basically to scan social media to see what people are discussing and to report on that. They had me start at 6:30 in the morning to see what people were talking about and then use that to write stories to increase our digital audience. I thought that definitely would’ve been the case for the George Floyd protests.

At your press conference, you sounded like you didn’t know if you wanted to stay in Pittsburgh. Is that what you were trying to convey?

I don’t have plans to leave the Post-Gazette. The issue is this is possibly the largest civil rights movement moment since the 1960s, and I want to be able to report and share these stories on my home turf, in my hometown. That’s why I was excited about switching from the web desk to reporter. I’d be lying if I said it’s not going to be uncomfortable staying here, but the Guild and I have only been wanting to put this to rest.

But looking at the stats from the recent report that came out saying Pittsburgh was the least livable for black women, I’d be remiss if I didn’t make any connection between my company here and the city. This happens not just in newsrooms, but I’m sure in other offices and industries in Pittsburgh as well.

Growing up here, did it feel like a most unlivable city for you?

What’s interesting is growing up here I didn’t really notice the lack of diversity, or it’s so small I didn’t notice how much of a minority I was until I moved out of the city. Philadelphia [where she earned a Masters degree in journalism from Temple University] has a larger black population and is more diverse, but moving back to Pittsburgh as an adult and knowing more things and seeing more things in the world, I did see the things spoken of in the report — things I didn’t notice before because I just thought that’s what things were. I was used to being the only black person in the classroom or in the restaurant, or in the room. In Philadelphia, that was almost never the case.

Michael Santiago, Post-Gazette photojournalist

MIchael Santiago

You were tear-gassed and almost arrested while shooting the protests, before they took you off. Tell us how you felt in those moments.

The thing about that is I wasn’t targeted for following a group of protesters. I was going where the police were telling us to go. They were telling us, “Go here, go this way,” and we went the way they told us to go, but they still tear-gassed us. So I spent maybe five minutes trying to recover from all of that. I couldn’t see. I was choking. I couldn’t breathe. My eyes were burning. I felt like I was going to pass out. Then someone gave me a bottle of water and poured it all over my face. But I was still having difficulty breathing.

That’s when I told the cop that I was media. I’m even flashing my press credentials, but they said, “Well, if you don’t leave from here, you will be arrested.”

I was worried about being put in jail where people are testing positive for Covid. I felt like, I knew people who’ve been tear-gassed and they all recovered after a while, so I figured I’d be fine after a couple of hours. I just didn’t want to get arrested and put in a confined space where a lot of people are positive for Covid.

How did it feel to be threatened even though you showed your right to be there as press?

It’s been frustrating. The good thing is seeing our co-workers at the Post-Gazette have our back. They silenced Alexis first, and I came to bat for her, and then the rest of the newsroom joined in. This was dope. But mentally I’m still dealing with the fact that America’s protesting because of the death of another black man, and I’m a black journalist having to cover this again. Now I’m being barred from covering this, and I feel distressed knowing that I can’t cover one of the biggest stories that’s going on right now. That’s just where my head has been at, just distressed. I’m sick to my stomach. There’s a movement happening and things are changing rapidly everywhere. It’s not just black people. It’s white people, Latino people, everybody is out there protesting. I’m sick that I can’t go out there and contribute to this the way I know how, as an image-maker. That’s depressing.

What I hear you saying is despite your tribulations, you still want to be a journalist and serve the public.

It’s not just about being a photojournalist, it’s about being a black photojournalist. And now that’s even more important because when I take off my press pass and put my cameras down, I’m just another black man that can be treated just like anybody else. But at the same time, it doesn’t matter that I have a camera and a press pass; I had that last week and you see how they still treated me. If I wasn’t working, I would be out there protesting myself. It’s like that viral video of the black National Guardsman who’s standing there while the crowd is chanting, “I’m black and I’m proud,” and he’s saying it with them. Honestly, that’s me when I’m out there photographing. I’m hearing the protests and all the songs that they are singing. I’m whispering them because I’ve been out there so long I’ve memorized the songs.

Having been here two years, do you feel that it is a “most livable city” as some rankings have dubbed it?  

I laughed when that came out, specifically because when it did, I was already deeply embedded in a project on child poverty across Allegheny County, and the majority of the neighborhoods we were working in were primarily black. So I knew right away — most livable for who? Because I’m not seeing that. One of the reasons I never go out [to bars, clubs] is because wherever I go, I don’t see anybody who looks like me. So who are you trying to attract? Because it’s not the people I’m reporting on. They’re not experiencing any of that. Especially not black women, and we saw that with how we’re seeing Alexis treated.

Tereneh Idia, columnist for Pittsburgh City Paper

Tereneh Idia

You just officially started working as a journalist in the city two years ago. What have been your overall observations of how Pittsburgh and its media treats race?

The way that Pittsburgh talks about itself is very much through a white-led media lens. And there’s this really strong energy and narrative that supports “the most livable city” mythology. There’s a lot of black-and-yellow flag waving. I’m often told we have to boost Pittsburgh because we’re on the rise and we need to come together. But again in coming together, it’s through this white umbrella. It’s  not even Pittsburgh, it’s Whitesburgh, and the stories and the framing, the icons, the symbols are all coming from a very white place. To try to attempt to tell stories from a multicultural black or brown framework, you’re dealing with a white gatekeeper at some point.

What has your experience been like navigating your own media tribulations amidst a pandemic and mass protests.

The pandemic just adds another layer, the protests add another layer. And for the most part, the media outlets in Pittsburgh are not set up for really supporting black journalists. There is not a framework or a foundation to understand the black experience and to support black journalists.

Were you surprised when you heard about what happened to Alexis Johnson and Michael Santiago?

It’s one of those things where, you know, things happen and it’s so believable, but then it’s so unbelievable at the same time. The thing that’s been the most interesting for me as an observer is just seeing the way that some of the white journalists at the Post-Gazette have had their world shaken. This whole changing the rules and moving the goalposts are all the things that we know happens when you’re black, because we’ve experienced it. Our whole life is something that they’re seeing now. And they’re really, really surprised. Like, they’re really shocked. And that for me is so interesting to watch because it just shows how different our experiences are.

It’s emblematic of exactly what happens when you’re black in Pittsburgh. Any time you try to do anything, the rules change, and instead of doing the right thing, a lot of times they will just double down on being wrong. All the rules are applied differently if you’re black, and the hypocrisy of it is just so evident. But that hypocrisy based on race is so American. It is exactly what America is about.

How are you feeling mentally and emotionally about all that’s happening?

So, even in my design work, I’m really focused on creating community, centering black and brown and indigenous people, using design as a way to free each other and to dismantle systems that are not serving us, that are built on our backs. Because right now we’re serving this really small minority of people. But this morning — I usually take walks or ride my bike — but I was too scared to go out last week. Today was my first day that I took my little walk. I’m very mindful that I’m vocally against the police. I’ve written about it. I’ve said it out loud, tweeted it. So I am fearful. I can’t lie about that.

But I also think about my grandparents who had to protect their family against Pinkerton guards who were trying to intimidate my grandfather, who was a union organizer and a coal miner. So for me, there’s always been the need to protect and the need to be vigilant. It’s just a legacy that we have to live under, and hopefully we can change that so that we really do have freedom.

Michael Fuoco, president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, and Post-Gazette reporter

Michael Fuoco, left, interviewed by local news outlet. (Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh)

Do you agree with Post-Gazette executive editor Keith Burris that Johnson’s tweet exhibited some kind of bias?

You notice in her tweet she doesn’t mention the city of Pittsburgh in it. She doesn’t say anything about white people. I saw it and my reaction was I thought it was really clever, witty, and thought-provoking. I may have even retweeted it. I never thought there was any problem with her doing that. I thought it was a really interesting perspective coming from the black experience. It was not controversial. It was benign, innocuous.

Just so we’re clear, Alexis hadn’t covered any protests yet when they took her off. We had protests the weekend when she wasn’t working. She came in on Monday morning and pitched four or five stories that were protest-related, and that’s when they said don’t do anything until they talk to her. That’s when they told her she couldn’t do anything protest-related. So she hadn’t covered it yet. It was like, going forward you can’t cover anything that’s related to the protests.

When you spoke with Post-Gazette management, how did they articulate their feelings about her tweet?

They said that it showed her bias, and my response was: But are there two sides to racism? She doesn’t in any way demean anybody. I think because it went viral, that’s what got their attention. They told us and told her that it basically disqualified her from any coverage going forward about the killing of George Floyd and systemic racism. And traditionally we have very few black journalists. I think their voices need to be heard. They have the lived experience. We have a 90% white newsroom, which I’m a part of. We should be adding black journalists, not taking them away.

If it had been a white person, you know, we would have objected to the company also, but the fact that it was a black person and they were barring her from covering the biggest civil rights story in a generation in our country, we felt was just ridiculous, unjustified and really hurtful. I can’t understand it and it’s wrong. It’s wrong on a moral level at wrong on a journalistic level, and it’s wrong on a contractual level.  

How do you feel as a white journalist in this moment?

I feel like I’m living in some kind of parallel universe, because this stuff is not supposed to be happening 2020. It shouldn’t be happening at any time, but, you know, it’s just of all times for them to be taking this kind of stance, to silence coverage of black protest, systemic racism, because the newsroom is supporting a black co-worker who unfairly and not justifiably was taken off of any coverage of black issues — it’s just, I just can’t wrap my head around that.

You’ve worked at the Post-Gazette for decades — have you seen anything like this before?

I’ve never seen anything like this. We told them they didn’t have to go down this road. Just let her pitch stories and you can take them or not take them. Don’t put any kind of handcuffs on them. That was a really bad decision they made and they’re now exponentially compounding it. And that’s why you’re seeing the uprising in the newsroom. That’s why you’re seeing the uprising on social media, because you don’t have to be a professional journalist to know that they’re discriminating against a black woman who should be out there covering it. Who better to cover the black experience than somebody who has lived that experience?

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Black Businesses Left Behind in Covid-19 Relief

Social distancing is not new to black communities. “Social distancing” in the form of anti-black segregation and discrimination was U.S. law throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. This created racial wealth disparities that have lingered, negatively impacting black people’s capacity to start and maintain businesses. The remnants of federally backed redlining practices, which financially isolated black people throughout the 20th century, throttled the amount of wealth black people could create from homeownership. Most entrepreneurs start businesses with the equity they’ve accrued in their homes. Consequently, black people, who’ve been over-burdened by American economic policies, require a different kind of stimulus in this coronavirus scourge era.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (Cares) package is an attempt to offset an impending recession caused by mandated and voluntary social distancing, which will last until at least April 30. Congress should also pass a relief package for people who’ve suffered from the de jure and de facto social distancing of racial segregation, which still sets African Americans apart from white people today on both a spatial and economic basis.

Current financial assistance bills at the federal, state, and local levels don’t account for real wealth differences created by past anti-black policies. The bounce back from the recession will be uneven and partial, as past recoveries have been, in terms of continuing to bail out white families while ignoring the financial and social hole that “colorblind” policies have created for black families.

The Coronavirus relief package includes a $25 million earmark for the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, which also receives regular funding from taxpayers and private donations. While we love the Kennedy Center — we hear the recent Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performance there was divine —  in D.C., where we both live, indigenous black art and cultural institutions are collapsing.

Go-Go was recently branded the official music of D.C., but that honor hasn’t come with financial support for the constellation of black businesses that support Go-Go culture. Meanwhile, there is a cohort of arts nonprofits in D.C. that receive funding from the District despite the fact they already bring in more than $1 million in income annually. Black barbershops and beauty salons —  institutions that allowed black communities to survive segregation and legal exclusion for decades — are struggling. Where’s their bailout?  

We support arts funding, especially in challenging times. But in an emergency, we need to make public dollars stretch as much as possible. If well-endowed institutions such as the Kennedy Center can get a bailout, then we believe that it is more than appropriate to create set-aside programs specifically for black institutions and businesses  that have survived a legacy of legal discrimination.

Privilege may blind some to the reality that we are all indeed connected, but government leaders should no longer bury their heads in the sand to the unique vulnerability of black-owned businesses and neighborhoods created by past economic crisis responses.  

Through the Cares Act, Congress allocated $350 billion to the Small Business Administration to issue loans of up to $10 million per business. In addition, the Cares Act provides $10 billion for emergency grants of up to $10,000 for small businesses to cover operating expenses. These loans become grants if the businesses keep employees on the payroll through June.

But we need to consider the structural issues that often prevent black businesses from participating in these stimulus efforts. Black people represented 12.7% of the U.S. population, but only 4.3% of the nation’s 22.2 million business owners in 2012, according to analysis derived from the latest Census Survey of Business Owners. Asian Americans accounted for 6.9% of business owners and 4.8% of the population, while Latino or Hispanic Americans accounted for 12% of business owners and 16.4% of the population. Meanwhile, only 1% of black business owners were able to obtain loans in their founding year, compared with 7% of white entrepreneurs, according to Brookings and Gallup research.

Despite the need, Congress allocated just $10 million to the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) out of the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill. The MBDA connects “minority-owned businesses with the capital, contracts, and markets they need to grow, but yet it received not even 1% of coronavirus relief assistance.

Our research on business devaluation found that minority-owned businesses (i.e. black people, Asian Americans, Latinos or Hispanics, and American Indians) in majority-black neighborhoods earn significantly higher ratings on the consumer rating app Yelp than white-owned peers in white neighborhoods yet they receive less revenue because of the negative perception of the black neighborhoods they are in.

That research is consistent with other findings around housing prices in majority-black neighborhoods. In 2017, houses in black neighborhoods were priced 23% lower than the same kind of houses in white neighborhoods, amounting to $156 billion in accumulative lost equity in black neighborhoods throughout the United States. These losses are heirlooms of past recovery policies, including much of the New Deal, that didn’t consider race or discrimination in their stimulus packages. Colorblind” approaches have proven to hurt black people and restrict national growth.

The “black tax” – the financial penalty that people pay for living and running businesses in majority-black neighborhoods — must be accounted for in any future spending packages for the novel coronavirus recovery. We need to inject emergency funds into the people and institutions that policymakers have historically excluded from financial assistance the most, but yet are essential to the survival of black communities.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that we have a moral imperative to distribute resources based on racial equity. When the most vulnerable communities are healthy, then all communities are better off. The novel coronavirus is showing how interconnected we all are, as the contagion is infecting people across race, class, sex, gender, and age. Privilege may blind some to the reality that we are all indeed connected, but government leaders should no longer bury their heads in the sand to the unique vulnerability of black-owned businesses and neighborhoods created by past economic crisis responses.  

Any legislator that really wants to see the country recover from this current pandemic, must approach recovery using a racial equity framework. Political leaders must address the failures of the past that still extract wealth from black people and their assets, making them more vulnerable to inevitable shocks to the market, such as hurricanes, housing bubbles, and pandemics like the one we’re in now. If we really want a solid recovery in the short and long term, spending bills must address the needs that still exist. If we are all in this together, then we must all address the anti-black legislation that kept black people in a state of emergency before the emergence of Covid-19.

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What’s Really Behind the Native American Health Gap?

Growing up as a member of the Ojibwe tribe, Melissa Walls knew that that diabetes ran in her maternal family. “I’ve lost two very close family members, my great grandfather and an uncle, to complications related to type 2 diabetes,” she says. But it wasn’t until she began studying American Indian health in graduate school, at the suggestion of another uncle who served as a liaison between academics and local tribal communities, that she understood that her family’s plight was part of a much larger problem.

American Indian adults are more than twice as likely as white adults to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, according to the Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Native American youth experience the highest and fastest-growing rate of the disease of any racial or ethnic group. But those statistics only scratch the surface of the kinds of health disparities that indigenous people face.

Nationally, the average life expectancy for a Native American person born today is 73 years—5.5 years below that for all other races. Members of this community, adolescents in particular, also experience much higher rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicide and suicidal behaviors. In fact, while the national suicide rate has gone up 33 percent since 1999, the rates for Native American women and men have jumped by an alarming 139 percent and 71 precent, respectively, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“You could take almost any health outcome and find health inequity for tribes,” Walls says. “I mean, take your pick.”

The health statistics reflect a dire economic reality—1 in 4 Native Americans live in poverty, the highest rate compared to all other races—and the massive gap in medical resources available to this population. The Indian Health Service, which runs clinics and hospitals for Native Americans, spent $3,332 per person in 2017, compared to $9,207 spent on each person in the national health care system, according to a 2018 report on funding shortfalls by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Walls knows from experience: Like the majority of American Indians, she grew up outside a reservation. Her family lived in International Falls, Minnesota, a town of about 6,000 people—mostly white—near the Canadian border. But to access health services, her family had to go to the nearest reservation. “We drove an hour literally to go to the doctor, to go to the dentist, to get our eyes checked,” she says. “But when you grow up in that context, you don’t label it as an inequity or disparity. It’s just sort of your reality.”

More than two-thirds of Native Americans now live in urban areas, not reservations. That reflects 1950s-era federal policy designed to encourage American Indians living on reservations to urbanize, in the name of speeding “assimilation” (and freeing up tribal lands for federal exploitation). The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Urban Relocation Program of 1952 and the federal Indian Relocation Act of 1956 offered promises of job training and housing for the new arrivals; the hope was that moving to cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis would allow more Native Americans to participate in the postwar economic boom. But in practice the relocation policy was “essentially a one-way bus ticket from rural to urban poverty,” as former Indian Affairs Commissioner Philleo Nash admitted in the 1960s.

Walls is now the head of the new Great Lakes hub of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for American Indian Health in Duluth, Minnesota, the city of 86,000 located three hours south of where she grew up. Her team currently works with 11 different tribal communities to better understand the health inequities that Native Americans experience, and try to correct them. The hub is just a 15-minute drive from the Fond du Lac band of Ojibwe tribe, with whom Walls has been working closely on diabetes prevention. Among her research interests: how stress impacts can affect type 2 diabetes, and how culture and community can help to buffer the negative effects of modern lifestyles among Native Americans.

CityLab recently caught up with Walls to talk about possible solutions to health inequities among American Indians, and why the damage that government policies inflicted on this population has been so far-reaching. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Can you explain how government policy induced historical trauma in the indigenous population?

The historical trauma encompasses a lot of government actions like setting up reservations and marching people across the country. Then in the the 1950s and ’60s, the government started a relocation program to get [Native Americans] into urban areas, and give them job training programs. It failed miserably, like most of these things did, in part because the job training was woefully inadequate, and often [the jobs available] were temp work or summer employment, if anything.

People were taken out of their family support systems or cultural safety nets, thrown into these urban environments, and expected to survive. Certainly in some cities, native people have worked to try build those kinds of networks. But you are very much a minority in the urban context. I think the idea of not having access to not just your friends and your family, which we all need, but those particular aspects of cultural teachings of ceremony that creates a sense of spirituality, purpose, and belonging would be scary to anybody.

[The relocation policy] was rooted in this flawed idea that all people need to look and act like European Americans, and live the way they do. It’s shocking, if you go into some of these government records, just how blatantly plain the language is about how the goal was really to exterminate or assimilate.

That has impact on communities, and we see it play out in terms of mental health, substance abuse, suicide, and other chronic diseases.

You’ve been largely looking at diabetes—how does historical trauma fit into that story?

In the case of diabetes, one really tangible thing is what we call nutrition transition. In the Midwestern U.S., Ojibwe people once had a thing called a seasonal round, where with each season came new sources of food. In the springtime, you tap trees to get maple syrup. In the fall, you gather wild rice off the lake and you hunt deer. Every season had ways of getting [food] that burned a lot of calories.

Moving away from these ways of eating and getting your food, and suddenly relying on government-sponsored commodity programs [that included] flour, sugar, lard, butter, we start to see rates of obesity kind of going off the charts. And we continue to suffer the consequences.

And this trauma has affected multiple generations?

Some of the research we’ve done is really trying to link up negative health outcomes with specific policies. We’ve published a paper that demonstrates how families who’ve gone through those relocation programs have the worst health outcomes that we can track across three generations.

It’s based on survey data from members of eight tribal communities. We were able to track parents’ reports of their parents going through relocation. If they did, we saw a significant pathway where those [first-generation] parents might have had substance abuse issues, which led to substance abuse and depression in the [second-generation] parents. That led to them being not very good parents of their own kids—the third generation—who at the time were in adolescence. They had bad outcomes like delinquency and depression.

The article was published in 2012, but we continue to collect new data every year from that same cohort, so it’s an ongoing study.

Your research is mostly on communities that live within reservations, but what can you tell us about the current urban Native American population so far?

In our cohort study, the kids who grew up on the reservation, a good chunk of them now have moved on to cities, which is another thing that happens. People tend to migrate between cities and reservations. With our new data that’s being collected from that cohort, we’re going to be able to examine urban-rural differences.

What I do know is that the health issues that hit tribal people on reservations, some reports say they’re actually compounded and worse for people in the cities, for reasons like the lack of access to cultural protective factors and social networks. People are more likely to experience discrimination when they’re in an urban area. And there’s tons of research talking about how that hurts health.

What’s a common misconception about the indigenous community that you hope to dispel?

One of the big stories I’ve helped to push forward is that yes, we have these health inequities, but people on reservations and in urban areas also have really amazing positive stories. Like with positive mental health, when we started measuring it, our communities were off the charts compared to non-native people.

We found this measure created by a sociologist called Corey Keyes [that] assesses emotional well-being, psychological well-being, and social well-being across three domains using 14 different indicators. These items assess basically how much you’re flourishing or languishing in those domains. And the outcome was that the percentage of people in our sample who [reported] flourishing was much higher than what we had seen in other studies with non-Native samples.

So you can have these [inequity] issues, but also have vibrant and cultural richness, family centric [communities] with communal, take-care-of-one-another thinking.

And that has implications for all humans: that being embedded in your community is good for you, that being tied culturally to other people is good for you. It’s not just a dismal doom-and-gloom kind of story.

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What’s Behind the Barcelona Protests?

Barcelona erupted in protests yesterday, after courts handed out sentences of up to 13 years in prison to nine Catalan separatist leaders arrested for their role in staging a 2017 referendum on Catalan independence.

Protesters filled the streets across the Catalan capital, with an estimated 25,000 massing in the city center and an unconfirmed but substantial number at the airport. Employing a strategy most recently used by demonstrators in Hong Kong, they blocked train and metro access to the airport for several hours, causing over 100 flight cancellations.

The police response to the protesters was aggressive: After assaults with batons and foam bullets, 131 people required medical assistance, including one man who lost an eye.

The spark for the demonstrations was the sentencing of the Catalan leaders—among them, former Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras—who were responsible for organizing the region’s independence referendum in October 2017. The trial’s defendants maintained that the referendum was legal thanks to a law hustled quickly through Catalonia’s regional assembly, then overturned the following day by the country’s Constitutional Court. Judges rejected their argument and gave Junqueras and three other ministers 13 years apiece in prison for sedition and misuse of public funds. Former parliamentary speaker Carme Forcadell was given 11½ years, two other leaders nine years, and three further politicians were handed fines.

Notably absent from the trial: former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, who is still evading trial by living in exile in Belgium. In a fiery op-ed published yesterday, Puigdemont insisted that the verdict yesterday will in the end “inevitably backfire on Spain.”

Things could have been worse for the defendants: They were also accused of the crime of rebellion—which carries a potential sentence of 25 years—but that charge was overturned because their moves came with no campaign of violence. As it stands, the long sentences they received are still intensely divisive. While many Spanish citizens support cracking down on the Catalan independence movement, doling out prison time to the region’s former administration can only compound the impression given to many in Catalonia that Spain seeks to maintain control of the semi-autonomous region by authoritarian means—in part to curry favor with voters elsewhere in the country who are happy to see the central government taking a firm, uncompromising hand in Catalonia.

Tension boiled over on the streets of Barcelona soon after the sentences were announced. Activist group Tsunami Democràtic put out calls on social media for protesters to congregate at the airport. Demonstrators started arriving (often by metro and train) in large numbers until by later afternoon, they filled terminal buildings and car parks. Meanwhile, beyond Barcelona itself, a further 25,000 protesters congregated in the nearby city of Girona, where they briefly blocked several highways to France before apparently removing the blockades themselves. The police response was equally swift, and again social media was flooded with images of street clashes. Coming two years after police beat Barcelonans trying to participate in the attempted independence referendum, images of this crackdown have only inflamed tensions more.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the clashes represent an uncomplicated publicity coup for pro-independence forces. While regional leaders have applauded the protests, they’re also responsible for directing some of the police conducting the crackdown.

As I explained earlier this year in this CityLab article, Barcelona has a complex—and some would say quasi-dysfunctional—policing situation in which responsibilities are divided between separate national, regional, and urban forces. The officers beating back protesters were thus not just from the Guardia Civil, which is under the control of Spain’s national government, but also from the Mossos D’Esquadra, the main force controlled by the pro-independence regional government. This might seem odd, but while the regional government might be in favor of independence, they are also responsible for public order. Placed in the perverse position of being obliged to police civil unrest fed by a cause they profess approval of, the authorities have tacitly put order first. So when Mossos officers fired foam projectiles at protesters, some opponents of the current regional administration—including figures from the city’s municipal government—have been quick to damn this as hypocritical cynicism.

This doesn’t look good. The regional government is in a very difficult position—they may ostensibly support the aims of the demonstrators, but, on a day when their erstwhile colleagues are behind bars, must nevertheless resist giving the impression that they are a chaotic anti-state force. This has led to a bizarre situation: Regional leaders have been applauding the protests on social media while simultaneously giving orders to break them up.

As of Tuesday, the unrest has died down (at least at time of publication), but with national elections coming up in early November—and no party with an unequivocal lead in the polls—this could all potentially just be chapter one.

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CityLab Daily: The Fears Behind the Bay Area’s Historic Power Outage

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What We’re Following

Candle in the wind: Much of the California Bay Area was blacked out yesterday, in a move that the state utility said would head off the risk that high winds could spark a deadly blaze. It’s being called a “preemptive blackout.” But what does that really mean? Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) started shutting down parts of the electricity grid for safety purposes last year after its fragile and poorly maintained power lines helped ignite the deadly Camp Fire in Paradise, California. But this shutdown could last a while—as much as five days in some areas. An estimated 2.4 million people could be in the dark, although the most urbanized parts of the region should be left mostly untouched.

Elected officials and citizens are criticizing the utility for creating the conditions that made this shutdown necessary. PG&E is already under state investigation for last year’s wildfire, and the utility filed for bankruptcy in January, facing billions in liability and possible criminal charges related to its safety record. CityLab’s Sarah Holder has story: The Fears That Shut the Power Off in the Bay Area

Oops: We apologize for a typo in the subject line of yesterday’s newsletter. It should have read: “The Cities Where Emissions Are Already Falling.” You can still check out our story here.

Andrew Small


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What We’re Reading

The most detailed map of auto emissions in America (New York Times)

Trump’s trillion-dollar hit to homeowners (ProPublica)

In France, elder care comes with the mail (New Yorker)

The climate crisis in 2050: What happens if cities act but nations don’t? (The Guardian)

What happens when your tweet becomes a subway ad (OneZero)


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