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Walter Mercado, an iconic Puerto Rican astrologer and celebrity, dies at 88

40 0 03 Nov 2019

One of Puerto Rico’s most well-known celebrities, television personality and astrologer Walter Mercado, died of apparent kidney failure at a hospital in San Juan on Sunday, according to a family spokesperson who confirmed his passing to Telemundo.

Mercado was 88.

Mercado became known throughout Latin America and the U.S. through his television show, with his signature, flamboyant style and his colorful capes. He was so beloved that this past summer, the HistoryMiami Museum had an exhibit about his life, 50 years after his first television appearance.

Mercado was born in Ponce, one of Puerto Rico’s largest cities. He worked briefly for TV stations based in the U.S. Caribbean territory before moving to South Florida.

There, he gained fame for his daily horoscope segment on Spanish-language TV, delivered in a dramatic fashion with an exaggerated trilling of the “r″ sound. He favored long and colorful brocades and huge gemstone rings, which he flashed while pointing to viewers.

His catch phrase to his audience: “Sobre todo, mucho, mucho amor,” which translates to “Above all, lots and lots of love.”

Mercado never publicly stated his sexuality, but he was an icon in the gay community as someone who challenged the conservative television culture in Latin America.

“He endows the drag queen with papal authority,” Diana Taylor, a New York University Tisch School of Performing Arts professor, wrote in a 2003 critique.

On Twitter, the reaction to his death was swift as Latinos across the country reacted to the news.

Because he had spent so many decades in the public eye, he was known to several generations of Latinos, from grandparents to twenty-somethings.

In 1998, Mercado got in trouble for endorsing alleged health and beauty products.

He was named in a class-action lawsuit that accused him of misleading people into buying beads with supposed special powers. The president of the jewelry company, Unique Gems International Corp., was later sentenced to 14 years in prison for defrauding 16,000 people in a $90 million scam.

In October 2010, Mercado announced he was changing his name to “Shanti Ananda.” That same year, he stopped shooting his segment for the Univision Spanish-language TV channel. Months later, he began to deliver daily horoscopes through El Nuevo Herald newspaper in Miami.

Mercado was hospitalized in December 2011 in Puerto Rico following a cold that turned into pneumonia. His health condition worsened, and he was transferred to a hospital in Ohio. It was later revealed that he had suffered a heart attack.

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New Jersey man, a renowned journalist, held in his native Nigeria for nearly 3 months

42 0 03 Nov 2019

Omoyele Sowore, an activist journalist who lives in New Jersey, has been detained by his native country of Nigeria for nearly three months, prompting calls by international journalists’ and human rights groups for his release.

Sowore, founder of an online investigative news site called Sahara Reporters, is a graduate of the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and a world-renowned journalist, according to English PEN, the founding center of PEN International, a worldwide writers’ association.

He was arrested in early August after he called for a revolution following a February election which he said was not credible, Reuters reported. He ran for president in that election, in which former military ruler President Muhammadu Buhari secured a second term in office.

The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization on Oct. 31 submitted a petition to a United Nations working group on behalf of Sowore, saying he has “been arbitrarily detained” and that Nigerian authorities have levied baseless charges against him for organizing the #RevolutionNow protest movement that aims to oppose “the rampant government corruption that still plagues the country.”

The organization said Sowore’s Sahara Reporters has been referred to as the Wikileaks of Africa.

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Sowore continues to face seven charges that include treason, money laundering and cyberstalking, according to Reuters. The latter charge is for allegedly sharing information that insulted and incited hate against the Nigerian president.

His wife, Opeyemi Sowore, and Nani Jansen Reventlow, an attorney, said in an interview with DemocracyNow! that Omoyele Sowore had only spoken to his wife and children twice since he was arrested in August.

“He’s definitely putting up a brave front, but it’s hard staying in isolation for that long,” Opeyemi Sowore said in the interview. “And having monitored calls with your family limits what he’s able to say or how freely he’s able to express himself.”

U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat who represents the New Jersey district where Sowore lives, told NJ.com he is looking into the matter.

“We’re in touch with the State Department on this matter and we’re speaking with the family regularly,” Gottheimer said in a statement.

Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also spoke out on his detainment.

“I stand with the human rights and international community in declaring that the continued detainment of Mr. Omoyele Sowore is a flagrant violation of his human rights,” Bass said in a statement. “The right to peaceful protest is a fundamental human right guaranteed under both Nigerian and international law.”

Sowore’s small New Jersey community of Haworth is also pushing for his release.

Residents and town leaders gathered earlier this week to bring attention to his arrest and push for his release.

“We want the federal government paying attention,” Haworth Councilwoman Heather Wasser told NJ.com. “We want the United Nations paying attention. We want him out of Nigeria safely.”

Harriet illuminates Harriet Tubmans heroism but not the world that necessitated it

52 0 02 Nov 2019

“Harriet” is the first feature-length rendering of the life of American hero Harriet Tubman (née Araminta “Minty”” Ross), who served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, a spy for the Union Army and a leader of one of the more daring raids during the Civil War, on the Combahee River, liberating over 700 enslaved persons. Most Americans know at least some of her story, which was, indeed, like a movie. She was, as the saying goes, larger than life, though relatively in reality small of stature.

But her iconic nature makes any film about her an inherently tall order. “I wanted people to see her humanity,” Cynthia Erivo, who played Tubman, said in a recent interview. “We know that she ran the hundred miles to freedom. We know that she came back and helped people escape again and again. But we don’t really hear about who she was, which is what this wonderful film does, bringing her humanity to the screen.”

Yet, in “Harriet,” Tubman remains an elusive vessel, a symbol of how we synthesize history into something more digestible to modern audiences. The film works, in part, as a corrective to a collective understanding of one of the worst periods in American history. We’ve not seen a film that centers on an enslaved person’s escape and self liberation, and seldom, in a film that centers on an enslaved person’s narrative, has that person ever been a woman. In those ways, “Harriet” is a new chapter in the ever-growing universe of biographical slave narratives on screen.

But, like other such films to date, it continues to leave audiences with two questions. Can films that explore this nation’s original sin ever present both honest and human renderings of the people that lived in them? Will these portraits ever resist sentiment to render a kind of truth as best ascertained by the evidence they’ve left us of their stories?

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In this case, the filmmakers have given us the most digestible history, resisting centering Harriet the formerly enslaved woman, in all those complexities, and pivoted to the archetype of Harriet Tubman, the hero of the Underground Railroad we have imagine from scraps pasted together from history books.

In the decades since it’s taken to bring one of our history’s most revered heroines to screen, we’ve learned a lot more about the peculiar institution of the slavocracy of the American South. Several books have illuminated the brutality of the slave economy and rigid social rules of plantation life, the hierarchies and rewards that white planters used to control the bodies they held in forced bondage; the particular cruelties exercised by white women on the black women under their control; and the inextricable relationship between the accrued wealth from the toil of millions of black people and the northern banks and factories.

Matthew Desmond, in his essay for The New York Times’ 1619 Project, eviscerates a common and shallow understanding of the Southern plantocracy’s reach into American life then and now. “What made the cotton economy boom in the United States, and not in all the other far-flung parts of the world with climates and soil suitable to the crop,” wrote Desmond, “was our nation’s unflinching willingness to use violence on nonwhite people and to exert its will on seemingly endless supplies of land and labor. Given the choice between modernity and barbarism, prosperity and poverty, lawfulness and cruelty, democracy and totalitarianism, America chose all of the above.”

That totalitarian barbarism isn’t fully rendered in this film. It avoids bolder, more painful renderings of life during enslavement that would viscerally illustrate to audiences the urgency in Tubman’s flight to Philadelphia from Maryland, as well as her unyielding tenacity to return and risk capture or death to rescue her beloveds and any who desired to make the arduous 100-mile trek north.

Much of the film is devoted to tracking her escape from the eastern shore of Maryland to the bustling streets of Philadelphia and back again, her adoption into the fellowship of the secret Underground Railroad, feted among her brethren for accomplishing the impossible, and guiding groups helping the enslaved flee to freedom.

Director Kasi Lemmons’ debut, “Eve’s Bayou,” (canonical in black cinema) expertly blended Southern gothic and mysticism, and that influence is evident in “Harriet” as audiences watch Tubman’s “spells” or seizures — which she experiences as premonitions— that warn against imminent dangers or confirm for her the surety of her path.

God, in the form of those spells or seizures, talks to her, warning her to escape before she is sold or helping her as she evades discovery or capture, and one could feel the film holding back at various points deeper explorations of the times to provide an imagined interiority for Tubman. “Harriet” thus aims to situate itself between profundity and mysticism, but embraces the safe waters of a conventional biopic — a hero’s journey — instead of a more intimate exploration of either the woman or the era.

Steve McQueen’s 2013 film, “12 Years a Slave,” by comparison, reflects more historical knowledge of the reality of the era. McQueen, of course, had the benefit of Solomon Northup’s own words to lead audiences into both the protagonist’s interiority and the horrors of enslavement. Northup’s journey from resistance, adaptation and survival revealed to audiences the banality of systemic evil and shamed them if they dared look away, making “12 Years” simultaneously a beautiful and an ugly film.

While “Harriet’s” filmmakers did not have the benefit of a cohesive narrative penned by Tubman to add more multidimensionality and nuance to her character, their choices of what to emphasize (her heroism) and what to de-emphasize (her deep humanity in the face of almost unfathomable inhumanity) don’t illuminate enough about our past for audiences to draw the most important lessons about America’s original sin: that it was so easy, and so acceptable, to be so inhuman.

Still, “Harriet” clearly wants to subvert our understanding of slave narratives by presenting a “freedom narrative” in sharper relief. Thus showing Tubman in “Harriet” as the heroine of her own liberation who uses it to champion the freedom of others is an appreciated and noble gesture for audiences yet underacquainted with her.

Watch as thousands line streets for parade honoring the Washington Nationals World Series win

46 0 02 Nov 2019

Thousands of Nationals’ fans lined the streets of Washington, D.C., for a parade celebrating the franchise’s first-ever World Series win, which the team clinched Wednesday in a thrilling Game 7.

Most players were to participate in the parade, which is to be followed by a visit to the White House hosted by President Donald Trump on Monday.

Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon tosses back a baseball after signing it for a fan before the victory parade on Saturday. Samuel Corum / EPA

For that event, at least one player, Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle, has said he will not be going to the White House.

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Doolittle said in an interview on Friday that President Trump’s rhetoric played a key role in his decision.

“There’s a lot of things, policies that I disagree with, but at the end of the day, it has more to do with the divisive rhetoric and the enabling of conspiracy theories and widening the divide in this country,” Doolittle told The Washington Post.

Doolittle also cited his wife’s two mothers’ being active members of the LGBTQ community as well as his brother-in-law’s autism as reasons he would not attend.

Washington Nationals left fielder Juan Soto, center, celebrates with teammates before a parade to celebrate the team’s World Series victory on Nov. 2, 2019, in Washington.Patrick Semansky / AP

“I have a brother-in-law who has autism, and (Trump) is a guy that mocked a disabled reporter,” Doolittle said in the interview. “How would I explain that to him that I hung out with somebody who mocked the way that he talked, or the way that he moves his hands? I can’t get past that stuff.”

The pitcher was referring to Trump’s contorting his arms during a campaign speech in November 2015 in an apparent imitation of reporter Serge Kovaleski, who suffers from arthrogryposis. Trump later defended his behavior, claiming he was not familiar with Kovaleski’s appearance and was not aware of his condition.

Some other professional athletes who have won championships have previously chosen not to visit the White House under the current president. Trump cancelled a visit from the Philadelphia Eagles last year after members of the team said they planned to boycott the event. And in 2017, the president rescinded an invitation to the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry following a backlash to Trump’s criticism of NFL players who refused to stand during the National Anthem.

Southern California braces for more fire weather as Maria fire torches over 9,000 acres

45 0 02 Nov 2019

Southern California braced for more fire weather Saturday as the region faced ongoing low humidity and tinder-dry vegetation.

Firefighters in Ventura County north of Los Angeles meanwhile continued to battle the Maria Fire, which spread quickly late Thursday through Friday across more than 9,000 acres, threatening avocado, lemon and orange crops.

“There was some progress, then a lot of challenges,” Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen told reporters at a news conference. “We are not out of the woods yet. We still have 24 hours of critical fire weather ahead of us.”

With wind gusts blowing through the area at speeds as high as 35 mph coupled with the dry conditions, the National Weather Service extended its red flag warning until 6 p.m. Saturday for the Ventura County and Santa Clarity valleys and some other nearby areas. Winds were expected to weaken by Saturday night.

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More than 500 firefighters in Ventura County were still working the blaze,which as of Saturday morning was 20 percent contained.

Mandatory evacuations remained in place for the fire on South Mountain and in Santa Paula, but a few orders had been lifted as the fire continued to move.

Southern California Edison said in a statement late on Friday that the Maria fire appeared to have started at 6:13 p.m. on Thursday on South Mountain, a productive oil field near the city of Santa Paula.

The company said it would cooperate with investigators, noting that 13 minutes prior to the fire it had re-energized a circuit in the area that had been shut off in an effort to mitigate the wildfires sweeping across California.

“The company’s top priority is the safety of customers, employees and communities, which is why we continue to enhance our wildfire mitigation efforts through grid hardening, situational awareness and enhanced operational practices,” spokeswoman Susan Cox said in a statement.

Utility companies throughout the state joined together in an attempt to stop wildfires by cutting off power to millions of Californians, as a number of blazes have threatened communities across the state.

The Maria fire is just 25 miles northwest of the Easy fire, which ignited Wednesday and initially threatened the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

That 1,860-acre blaze was 80 percent contained by Friday morning, officials said.

The Getty fire, which started Monday, has torched 745 acres of West Los Angeles and was 66 percent contained, Los Angeles Fire Department officials said Friday. All mandatory evacuations were lifted at about 10 a.m. local time Friday.

A year after ex-felons in Florida got their voting rights back, obstacles remain

47 0 02 Nov 2019

Desmond Meade can’t vote in Orlando’s mayoral contest. But he’ll be in the city on Saturday anyway, cheering as hundreds of recently reinfranchised ex-felons and their families head to the polls together.

Meade, the organizer who lead a campaign to amend Florida’s Constitution and restore voting rights to an estimated 1.4 million people with felony convictions, called the party “a celebration of expanding our democracy.” He has three felony convictions of his own, acquired during years of drug addiction. Just the thought of voting again, he said, “brings tears to my eyes.”

But after the festivities, he has to return to work.

Since it was overwhelming passed by voters last year, the constitutional amendment Meade and his group, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, fought for has spurred legislation and litigation over differences of opinion in how to interpret and implement it. The FRRC has renewed its educational efforts, kicking off a a 23-city bus tour Saturday to register eligible ex-felons and raise awareness about a fund to help people pay off fines and fees associated with their convictions — an issue at the heart of the latest legal battle voting rights advocates have waged over restrictions lawmakers put in place that could still keep thousands from accessing the ballot box.

The amendment said rights restoration would automatically apply to convicted felons who completed “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation,” but would not apply to people convicted of murder or felony sex crimes. Previously in Florida, felons were disenfranchised for life unless they pursued a years-long clemency process, which restored rights to an average of 400 people a year.

In June, Florida’s GOP-controlled legislature voted along party lines to pass S.B. 7066, a bill implementing the amendment with a requirement that former felons pay off all court fees and fines before the terms of their sentence is deemed completed.

Desmond Meade fills out a voter registration form next to his wife Sheena at the Supervisor of Elections office in Orlando, Fla., on Jan. 8, 2019.John Raoux / AP file

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An estimated 80 percent of Florida felons are assigned fees, fines or restitution at sentencing, according to a recent court filing, and many will spend years or decades on payment plans to settle — meaning thousands of people were suddenly no longer eligible for rights restoration. Meade estimates that more than half a million people cannot register to vote because of these financial obligations.

Advocates slammed the provision as a “poll tax.” The American Civil Liberties Union, Brennan Center for Justice and NAACP Legal Defense Fund quickly sued to block the law, which they argued defied the will of Florida voters.

In October, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle gave voting rights advocates a big win: a preliminary injunction ruling that Florida could not preclude people with prior felony convictions from voting based on unpaid financial dues if they truly couldn’t afford it. Voting rights advocates hailed the injunction as a “massive victory,” because it rejected the idea that the fines could keep plaintiffs from the ballot box, but acknowledged that it was limited, in part because it only granted relief to the 17 named plaintiffs.

Meanwhile, at the request of Republican Gov. Rick DeSantis, the Florida State Supreme Court is expected to wade into the fight, too, with an opinion on whether the constitutional amendment includes financial obligations, as lawmakers insist. Hinkle wrote in his ruling that he anticipates the court will interpret the amendment in line with Florida’s legislators.

Lawyers in the federal court case warn that if the legislature fails to make proper accommodations for felons with outstanding fines, they will opt to go to trial, which is currently slated for April.

“The state can’t continue to disenfranchise people under an unconstitutional system,” said Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff lawyer for the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “We’ll continue to fight for full relief in Florida to make sure that inability to pay is not a barrier to voting for anyone.”

And there are still outstanding practical issues with the law. Because Florida has no centralized system to track the fees and fines, it’s sometimes difficult for former felons to figure out how much they owe the state.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes — one of the architects of S.B. 7066 — said that per Hinkle’s recommendation, lawmakers will decide on how to address the issue of outstanding court fines within the voter registration process when the legislature reconvenes in January.

“We’re hoping that the state will resolve these dire constitutional concerns because to fail to do so would both go against the will of Floridians when they passed Amendment 4, and we would all find ourselves back in court to resolve those issues,” Ebenstein said.

But Meade remains positive.

“In spite of the litigation and legislation, we know what we’re talking about is real people,” he told NBC News this week. “We’ve been laser-focused on the fact that there are a significant number of people who are eligible to register to vote, who don’t face financial obligations.”

Meade said his group is helping people petition the courts to reduce their fees and fines while also raising cash to pay off what others owe.

“Folks need to know that — it’s not all gloom and doom,” Meade said. “There are alternative pathways.”

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