Oscar Nominations: Who Will Win?

Photo courtesy of Twitter.

By Terrance Turner

March 15, 2021

Nominations for this year’s Academy Awards were announced this morning. In a 7 AM ceremony, actor & singer Nick Jonas and his wife, actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas, presented the nominees. As so often this year, the roster contains some surprising inclusions and several glaring exclusions. But the headline is that nine actors of color earned Academy Award nominations — the most ever in that arena.

Perhaps most surprising is the race for Actor in a Supporting Role, dominated by two films about unrest and civil rights in Chicago. Sacha Baron Cohen is nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of activist Abbie Hoffman in The Trial of the Chicago Seven. The film is based on a true story. According to People, “The Netflix film is based on the trial of eight anti-Vietnam War protestors — Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Lee Weiner, John Froines and Bobby Seale — who were charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intention of inciting the riots that erupted at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.”

According to the Chicago Tribune, the trial was initially supposed to involve all eight men. But after being informed he could not have a lawyer of his choice, Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale was excluded. “Seale, after loudly disrupting the trial when he could not have the lawyer of his choice, was at first bound and gagged in the courtroom and then severed from the case for a later trial, which never occurred,” the Tribune says. (Actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen plays Seale in the film.) Cohen plays Abbie Hoffman, the leader of the Youth International Movement (or “Yippies”), who suggested a night of mass fornication during the convention and was arrested for public indecency.

Abbie Hoffman was arrested for public indecency for writing an expletive on his forehead. (Photo courtesy of FantasticMag.)

Also nominated for Best Supporting Actor is actor Daniel Kaluuya, for his work in “Judas and the Black Messiah”. Nominated against him in that category is actor LaKeith Stanfield, his co-star. Stanfield plays William O’Neal, who was arrested for being a car thief. He was offered a plea deal by the FBI: instead of serving time, he could infiltrate the Black Panther Party (a target of the FBI) and provide information on its dynamic leader Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya). O’Neal took the deal.

According to the Chicago Reader, “O’Neal was a Panther insider to the point where he was in charge of security for Hampton and possessed keys to Panther headquarters and safe houses, he was at the same time serving as an informant for the FBI. Among the information the teenaged O’Neal fed his FBI contact was the floor plan of Hampton’s west-side apartment.” That led to an FBI raid that killed Hampton at age 21.

Kaluuya’s performance as Hampton drew raves from critics: Entertainment Weekly wrote that “Kaluuya — alternately raw, tender, and incendiary — duly electrifies every scene he’s in.” The Austin Chronicle called it “the best performance of his career.” The L.A. Times said that “you can’t take your eyes of Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton,” calling him “an actor of boundless charisma and versatility.”

Daniel Kaluuya (left) and LaKeith Stanfield (right) in “Judas and the Black Messiah”. (Photo from Warner Brothers.)

Leslie Odom, Jr. is also a contender in this category for playing Sam Cooke in “One Night in Miami”. The film, directed by actress Regina King, dramatizes a 1964 meeting between Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali. The fateful encounter happened as Ali was preparing for a fight; he knocked out Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world. (Odom is also nominated for Best Original Song, for a song from the film that he co-wrote.)

The Best Supporting Actress category is also notable. Glenn Close is nominated (again) for her work in “Hillbilly Elegy”, joining Maria Bakalova (“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”), Amanda Seyfried (“Mank”) and Olivia Colman (“The Father”). But the headline is actress Yuh-Jung Youn, nominated for “Minari” — a film about a Korean family who moves to Arkansas in search of the “American Dream”. According to Variety, Youn is the first Korean ever to be nominated for an acting Oscar.

For Best Actress, the nominees are historic. Viola Davis is nominated for playing the title role in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (based on the play by August Wilson). This is her fourth Academy Award nomination — the most ever by a Black actress. (She was previously nominated best supporting actress for “Fences” and “Doubt” and as best actress for “The Help”.) This also makes her the first Black woman to be nominated twice for best actress. Viola Davis is the most nominated Black actress in history.

Joining her in that category is singer Andra Day, nominated for her performance in the titular role in Lee Daniels’ “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”. This is her first nomination for her first film! Other nominees include Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”), Frances McDormand (“Nomadland”), and Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”).

The race for Best Actor is a stunner. Per Variety, it’s the first time in Oscar history that the nominees haven’t been majority-white. Steven Yeun (nominated for “Minari”) is the first Asian American ever nominated for best actor in a leading role. Riz Ahmed (“Sound of Metal”) is the first actor of Pakistani descent ever nominated for an Academy Award. (He’s also the first Muslim to compete for Best Actor.) And sadly, Chadwick Boseman becomes the first actor of color to receive a posthumous nomination (for “Ma Rainey”). Gary Oldman (“Mank”) and Anthony Hopkins (“The Father”) round out the nominees.

In yet another historic first, two women are nominated for Best Director. Chloe Zhao becomes the first Asian woman ever in this category for her feature film “Nomadland.” It follows a woman who, after losing her job and husband, purchases a van and travels the American West. Also nominated for Best Director is Emerald Fennell, for “Promising Young Woman”, about a woman who avenges the rape of her friend. Rounding out the category are Thomas Vinterberg (for “Another Round”), David Fincher (for “Mank”, a story about the making of the 1941 classic “Citizen Kane”), and Lee Isaac Chung, who directed “Minari”.

In the Best Picture category, “Judas and the Black Messiah” makes history as the first film by an all-Black production team to be nominated for Best Picture. (One of the film’s producers is Ryan Coogler, who directed “Black Panther”.) As mentioned previously, two of the lead nominees for Best Picture concern 1960s political unrest in Chicago — “Judas” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” In “The Father”, Anthony Hopkins plays a man struggling to accept his dementia diagnosis and the ensuing memory loss, even as his daughter begins taking care of him. “Sound of Metal” follows a heavy-metal drummer beginning to lose his hearing.

Beyonce Makes Grammy History with “Black Parade”

Photo courtesy

By Terrance Turner

March 14, 2021

BREAKING NEWS: Beyonce is now the most decorated artist in Grammy history.

Just minutes ago, Beyonce won the Grammy for Best R&B Performance for her song “Black Parade”, which she co-wrote. With this win, she now has 28 Grammy Awards — more than any other artist, male or female. Grammy host Trevor Noah emphasized this historic moment after Beyonce’s name was called.

As the audience applauded her historic achievement, Beyonce sat with her hands over her (masked) mouth, stunned by the honor. Upon reaching the podium, she called the moment overwhelming. “This is so overwhelming,” she said. “I’ve been working my whole life, since I was nine years old. I just can’t believe this. This is such a magical night. Thank you,” she said.

But she also reflected on why she wrote the song. “As an artist, I believe our job is to reflect the times,” Beyonce said, noting that these times are especially difficult for so many. “I wanted to uplift, encourage, and celebrate all of the beautiful Black queens and kings that continue to inspire me and inspire the whole world.” She noted, “I know my daughter is watching tonight — my two daughters and a son…My daughter won her first Grammy tonight,” she beamed. (The award was for her appearance in Beyonce’s “Brown Skin Girl” video.) Beyonce thanked her children, her fans, and her husband (“my ROCK”) in her brief remarks.

“Black Parade” addresses Black and African culture, reparations, the COVID-19 pandemic, and police brutality (the latter two issues disproportionately impact Black people). “Ankh charm on gold chains, with my Oshun energy,” Beyonce sings, “or the Dashiki print”. (According to an analysis in Elle, ‘Ankh’ is a symbol deriving from Ancient Egypt, and ‘Oshun’ is the Nigerian Yoruba goddess of femininity, love, sensuality and fertility.)

According to the website for Black-owned clothing line D’Iyanu, the dashiki originated in West Africa and dates back as far as the 12th-13th century. It came into fashion in the United States during the 1960s as a symbol of Afrocentrism and Black pride. The lyrics also reference the universally recognized “Black Power” salute, which also become a Black pride symbol in the 1960s and 1970s. “Raise your fist in the air, show Black love,” Beyonce says.

The lyrics also reference civil rights and the protests that continue across this country in support of Black lives. “Trust me, they gon’ need an army/Rubber bullets bouncin’ off me/
Made a picket sign off your picket fence/Take it as a warning,” she continues. “Stroll line to the barbeque/Put us any damn where, we gon’ make it look cute/Pandemic fly on the runway, in my hazmat/Children runnin’ through the house and my art, all black.”

“Need another march, lemme call Tamika (Woo). Need peace and reparation for my people,” Beyoncé continues. “Tamika” is a reference to Tamika Mallory, a Black female activist who helped organize the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C. (She also served as co-president of the 2019 Women’s March, according to the New York Times.) Reparations for slavery have been a long-held but never-fulfilled request from many Black activists.

“We got rhythm/We got pride/We birth kings/We birth tribes,” Beyonce sings. “Motherland, motherlands, drip on me/I can’t forget my history is herstory, yeah…Here I come on my throne, sittin’ high/Follow my parade.”

“Black Parade” was released on the historic Black holiday of Juneteenth, which originated in Beyoncé’s home state of Texas. The holiday celebrates the emancipation of slaves in 1865, as the Civil War was ending. On June 19, 1865, slaves in Texas learned that they were free, more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The song arrived just hours after Beyoncé unveiled a new “Black Parade” initiative on her website.

Displayed on the website is a dizzying, dazzling directory of Black-owned businesses. The categories encompass art and design, fashion and lifestyle, bars and restaurants. The song “Black Parade” benefits her foundation BeyGOOD’s Black Business Impact Fund, administered by the National Urban League, to support Black-owned small businesses in need. And it is this song, dedicated to her people, that helped Beyonce make Grammy history.

One Year After Shutdown, A Ray of Hope for the XFL

By Terrance Turner

March 12, 2021

Today marks one year since the XFL suspended its season due to COVID-19. That decision, which came one day after the WHO declared the virus a pandemic, effectively marked the end of sports as we knew it.

It was a devastating end to a magical ride that had really just started. The season was only five weeks old; the Houston Roughnecks team was in New York for a game when the decision was announced. It was the Roughnecks who had the XFL’s best record, still undefeated at 5-0. I was having the time of my life as a freelance reporter for the XFL, meeting NFL veterans Greg Olsen and Brian Peters and XFL stars like Roughnecks quarterback P.J. Walker. And then it all came crashing down.

But there may be a glimpse of hope for the XFL. Word broke this week that the XFL is in talks with the Canadian Football League (CFL). The league is working with XFL owners Dwayne Johnson, Dany Garcia and Redbird Capital on a possible collaboration. In a statement announcing the news, Garcia said:

“Since we first acquired the XFL, we have focused on identifying partners who share our vision and values on and off the field. A vision filled with opportunity, innovation and the highest level of entertainment value for the benefit of our athletes, fans and communities. The CFL has expressed that similar sentiment and jointly we recognize a great opportunity to build exciting innovative football experiences that make the most of each league’s unique strengths. I look forward to our continued discussions and we will update the sports community as we have more to share.”

XFL owner Jeffrey Pollack added: “We are honored and excited to be in discussions with the CFL. It’s clear through our early conversations that we share a passion for football, an expansive sense of possibility, and a deep desire to create more opportunity for players and fans across North America and around the world. Blending the CFL’s rich heritage with our fresh thinking, and the unique reach and experience of our ownership, could be transformative for the game.”

Significantly, former Roughnecks receiver Nick Holley was signed today by the Calgary Stampeders, a CFL team. Holley shined on the Roughnecks, notching 21 receptions for 267 yards and two touchdowns. His twin brother Nate was once a linebacker for the Stampeders. Nate was named Defensive Rookie of the Year before signing with the Miami Dolphins this year.

Fox Host Tucker Carlson Continues Sexist, Racist, Anti-Mask Comments

By Terrance Turner

March 12, 2021

On Monday, International Women’s Day, President Joe Biden introduced the nominees who would be the second and third women to ever lead combatant commands. He spoke about the measures the military is taking: updating grooming standards, like allowing short ponytails, to make the environment for all forces more inclusive. He also appointed two female service members — Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost of the Air Force and Lt. Gen. Laura J. Richardson of the Army — to become four-star generals.

At that event, Biden said the military was undertaking “relatively straightforward work” to better reflect gender diversity within its ranks and retain female recruits, including “designing body armor that fits women properly, tailoring combat uniforms for women, creating maternity flight suits [and] updating requirements for their hairstyles.” That includes the efforts of Senior Master Sgt. Genevieve, superintendent of the 13th Reconnaissance Squadron, 926th Wing. According to the Air Force Times, Genevieve, whose last name has been omitted due to security concerns related to her job and mission, helped make maternity flight uniforms more available for pregnant Airmen members.

Instead of celebrating this change, Fox News host Tucker Carlson chose to mock it. “So, we’ve got new hairstyles and maternity flight suits. Pregnant women are going to fight our wars. It’s a mockery of the U.S. military,” he said. He added an anti-trans dig as he continued his monologue.

“While China’s military becomes more masculine as it’s assembled the world’s largest navy, our military, as Joe Biden says, needs to become more feminine — whatever feminine means anymore since men and women no longer exist,” Carlson said. “The bottom line is it’s out of control and the Pentagon is going along with it. Again, this is a mockery of the U.S. military and its core mission, which is winning wars.”

Carlson’s sexist comments drew a flurry of negative attention. One notable example was Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who lost both of her legs during a deployment in Iraq. (She became the first member of Congress to give birth while in office in 2018.)

“F-ck Tucker Carlson. While he was practicing his two-step, America’s female warriors were hunting down Al Qaeda and proving the strength of America’s women,” Duckworth tweeted. “Happy Belated Women’s Appreciation Day to everyone but Tucker Carlson, who even I can dance better than.”

In one viral clip, U.S. Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sergeant Scott Stalker, the Senior Enlisted Leader of United States Space Command, said that Carlson’s opinion is “based off actually of zero days in the armed services.” He also called on the military to “get back to work” and said “let’s remember those opinions were made by an individual who has never served a day in his life.” 

Rep. Mikie Sherill, a former Navy pilot who is also a mom of four, also noted that Carlson’s comments aren’t informed by one second of military experience. She was joined by a number of other female military veterans:

Now, #CancelFox is trending amid blowback from Tucker Carlson’s comments, which he refuses to apologize for. (But then again, he also didn’t apologize for falsely claiming that Black people “didn’t build this country”. Or for defending Kyle Rittenhouse when he shot Kenosha protesters. Or for claiming that immigration “makes our own country poorer and dirtier and more divided.” Or for continuing to work for a network that helped spread the “big lie” that fueled January’s deadly Capitol riot.)

It is a sharp irony that the same right-wing commentators who thought Colin Kaepernick’s protests were “disrespectful” to the military stood by a president who called soldiers “losers” and “suckers” and moved a warship because John McCain’s name was on it. Or that they include and fund a man who clearly has nothing but contempt for female veterans.


UPDATE (April 9, 2021): Tucker Carlson is under new scrutiny after a week of inflammatory comments — this time regarding the Capitol riot and a bizarre “replacement” theory.

On Tuesday, Jan. 6, Carlson opened his show by marking three months since the deadly Capitol riot. But his comments obscured the truth of the event. “A mob of older peole from unfashionable zip codes somehow made it all the way to Washington, D.C.,” he said. “They wandered freely through the Capitol, like it was their building or something. They didn’t have guns, but a lot of them had extremely dangerous ideas. They talked about the Constitution, and something called ‘their rights’. Some of them made openly seditious claims. They insisted, for example, that the last election wasn’t entirely fair. The whole thing was terrifying, and then, as you’ve been told so very often, they committed unspeakable acts of violence.”

FACT CHECK: The rioters did have guns. According to NPR, “Federal prosecutors say that Christopher Michael Alberts of Maryland was arrested on Capitol grounds on the evening of Jan. 6 while carrying a Taurus G2c 9 mm handgun with one round in the chamber and a full 12-round magazine. He also allegedly had an extra magazine in his pocket and was carrying a gas mask, pocket knife and first-aid kit[…]

Lonnie Leroy Coffman of Alabama was also arrested that evening after law enforcement found two firearms on his person, as well as what a federal judge referred to as a “small armory” in his truck, which was parked near the Capitol. According to the court, the government found “a loaded handgun,” “a loaded rifle,” “a loaded shotgun,” “a crossbow with bolts,” “several machetes,” “a stun gun” and “11 mason jars containing a flammable liquid, with a hole punched in the top of each jar.”

Today, the Anti-Defamation League is calling for Carlson to go. In a letter to Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott, the league blasted Carlson for comments he made last night in a segment on his show. The offending comments (this time) concerned immigration and voting rights.

“I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term ‘replacement,’ if you suggest that the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World. But they become hysterical because that’s what’s happening actually. Let’s just say it: That’s true,” Carlson claimed.

Insisting that he wasn’t voicing the “replacement” theory that he is now accused of invoking, Carlson said that “this is a voting rights question. I have less political power because they’re importing a brand new electorate. Why should I sit back and take that? The power that I have as an American guaranteed at birth is one man, one vote, and they’re diluting it. No, they are not allowed to do that. Why are we putting up with this?”

The ADL called out Carlson in its letter to Scott: “Last night, in a segment on his program dealing with voting rights and allegations of voter disenfranchisement, Tucker Carlson disgustingly gave an impassioned defense of the white supremacist “great replacement theory,” the hateful notion that the white race is in danger of being “replaced” by a rising tide of non-whites.”

“In short, this is not legitimate political discourse. It is dangerous race-baiting, extreme rhetoric. And yet, unfortunately, it is the culmination of a pattern of increasingly divisive rhetoric used by Carlson over the past few years. His anti-immigrant rhetoric has embraced subtle appeals to racism […] Furthermore, Carlson has suggested that the very idea of white supremacy in the U.S. is a hoax, earning him plaudits from former Klansman David Duke and white supremacist Richard Spencer,” the ADL wrote.

“Make no mistake: this is dangerous stuff. The ‘great replacement theory’ is a classic white supremacist trope that undergirds the modern white supremacist movement in America,” the ADL said, charging that this same sentiment underpinned the deadly 2017 Charlottesville protest chants of “Jews will not replace us!” And the ADL highlighted a slew of other xenophobic and racially charged comments Carlson has made over the years.  

“Given his long record of race-baiting, we believe it is time for Carlson to go,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt says.

UPDATE (April 26): Carlson is at it again, this time focusing on masks. “Masks have always been incompatible with a free society,” he fumed. “We used to know that. Masks strip people of their identity as individuals, transform people from citizens into drones. They isolate us and alienate us to shut us off from one another, they prevent intimacy and human contact. If I can’t see your face, I can’t know you.”

“Not even Tony Fauci pretends that masks are medically necessary. Instead, masks are purely a sign of political obedience,” Carlson lied. “We wear them because we have to. The only people who voluntarily wear masks outside are zealots or neurotics.” He insisted that a number of liberal voters who wear masks outdoors have a verifiable mental condition.

He then went even further: “Your response to children wearing masks as they play should be no different than your response to seeing someone beat a kid in Walmart. Call the police immediately. Contact Child Protective Services. Keep calling until someone arrives. What you’re looking at is abuse — it’s child abuse, and you are morally obligated to attempt to prevent it.”

Carlson’s words were roundly criticized on Twitter and beyond, and MSNBC host Joy Ann Reid eviscerated him on her MSNBC program tonight:

Stimulus Checks Arrive as Biden Marks One Year Since Pandemic Began

Photo from Reuters.

By Terrance Turner

March 11, 2021

Today marks one year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. (The WHO defines a pandemic as “the worldwide spread of a new disease.”) The term, meant to describe an infectious disease that has spread across a country and/or the world, soon became familiar parlance for Americans. But it wasn’t then.

In fact, many across the country were unaware of what the word even meant — much less the sweeping scope of death and disorder that it would cause across the globe. That lack of knowledge fed inaction, which became commonplace under the Trump administration. It was the lack of awareness or action that spurred the WHO to make a declaration in the first place.

“WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction,” the WHO inspector general said on March 11, 2020. “We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.” 

“Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death,” the WHO chief said.

“Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this virus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do,” the WHO chief said. “We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus. This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus.”

On Thursday, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the United States’ top expert on infectious diseases, cast a somber look back at the past 12 months. “It was exactly one year ago this morning that I said, ‘Things are going to get much worse before they get better,’” he said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “But I did not realize in my mind even anything close to more than a half a million people having died in this country.”

It was also one year ago today that the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo was canceled. For Houstonians like me, that was the first sign that something was truly wrong. It was the first-ever cancellation of an event that has gone on since 1931. But that event was just one of many to fall victim to the coronavirus.

This time last year, sports around the world came to a halt as a handful of elite athletes started to test positive for the virus. In the United States, over 20 million jobs vanished in just one month, the worst toll since the Great Depression. Food pantries have been swamped, schools have been disrupted, young people have grown anxious and depressedAmerican life expectancy fell by one year in the first half of 2020.

Now, a year later, the United States leads the world with total known cases and known deaths: The deaths of more than half a million people in the country have been linked to the virus, and more than 28 million people have been infected. Tonight, in remarks delivered live from the White House, President Joe Biden empathized with those Americans who have lost so much — their jobs, their houses, their loved ones.

“I know it’s been hard. I truly know. As I’ve told you before, I carry a card in my pocket with the number of Americans who have died from COVID to date. It’s on the back of my schedule. As of now, total deaths in America, 527,726. That’s more deaths than in World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War and 9/11 combined.

“They were husbands, wives, sons and daughters, grandparents, friends, neighbors, young and old. They leave behind loved ones, unable to truly grieve or to heal, even to have a funeral. But I’m also thinking about everyone else who lost this past year to natural causes, by cruel fate of accident or other disease. They, too, died alone. They, too, leave behind loved ones who are hurting badly.”

“The things we used to do that always filled us with joy have become things we couldn’t do and broke our hearts. Too often, we’ve turned against one another. A mask, the easiest thing to do to save lives, sometimes it divides us. States pitted against one another instead of working with each other. Vicious hate crimes against Asian Americans who have been attacked, harassed, blamed, and scapegoated.

“At this very moment, so many of them, our fellow Americans, they’re on the front lines of this pandemic trying to save lives, and still, still, they are forced to live in fear for their lives, just walking down streets in America. It’s wrong, it’s un-American, and it must stop.

“Look, we know what we need to do to beat this virus. Tell the truth. Follow the scientists and the science. Work together. Put trust and faith in our government to fulfill its most important function, which is protecting the American people. No function more important. We need to remember the government isn’t some foreign force in a distant capital. No, it’s us. All of us. We, the people.”

Biden said that Americans thrive when we come together for a common purpose, when we work together to overcome this virus. That echoed notes struck by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention head Dr. Rochelle Walensky. “To move past this pandemic, we must resolutely face these challenges head on and fully embrace the innovations, the new partnerships, and the resilience of our communities that have emerged from this crisis,” Dr. Walensky said Thursday in a statement on the W.H.O. anniversary.

Those communities need help to move forward. And it finally appears that help is on the way. But only after bitter debate did pass a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, which was signed into law by President Biden today.

Tonight, in his first prime-time address as president, Joe Biden addressed the bill’s many features. “And today, I signed into law the American Rescue Plan, an historic piece of legislation that delivers immediate relief to millions of people. It includes $1,400 in direct rescue checks, payments. That means a typical family of four earning about $110,000 will get checks for $5,600 deposited if they have direct deposit or in a check, a treasury check,” Biden said.

Biden had more good news for Americans in tonight’s speech.

I’m announcing that I will direct all states, tribes, and territories to make all adults, people 18 and over, eligible to be vaccinated no later than May 1. Let me say that again. All adult Americans will be eligible to get a vaccine no later than May 1. That’s much earlier than expected.

“And let me be clear. That doesn’t mean everyone’s going to have that shot immediately, but it means you’ll be able to get in line beginning May 1. Every adult will be eligible to get their shot. And to do this, we’re going to go from a million shots a day that I promised in December before I was sworn in, to maintaining, beating our current pace of 2 million shots a day, outpacing the rest of the world.”

Across the country, the seven-day average of daily new virus cases was 57,400 as of Wednesday — a decrease of 16 percent from two weeks earlier, according to a Times database, and a steep decline from the overwhelming crests earlier this year. But the number of new daily cases remains near the peak of last summer’s surge and is still too high for federal health officials, particularly given concerns about the spread of worrisome virus variants.

UPDATE (March 12, 2021): Today, in remarks that concluded at around 2:00 pm, the President followed up on previous comments in last night’s address. “Look, we know what we need to do to beat this virus. Tell the truth. Follow the scientists and the science. Work together. Put trust and faith in our government to fulfill its most important function, which is protecting the American people,” he said last night. Today, Biden reiterated that point and emphasized the need for truth-telling.

Biden noted that many lawmakers — “especially the ones that have been around a hundred years like me” — know about the erosion of trust in American government. He spoke of the need for Americans to have faith and trust in the government. That, of course, requires truth-telling. “There’s nothing the American people can’t handle if you tell them the truth,” Biden said. To that end, he repeated the revelation that he plans to travel the country with Vice President Kamala Harris (and their spouses) in order to inform Americans of the ways that the COVID relief bill will help them.

But he will also be working to implement the plan, the president added. “The devil’s in the details,” Biden said today. “It’s one thing to pass the American Rescue Plan. It’s going to be another thing to implement it. It’s going to require fastidious oversight to make sure there’s no waste or fraud and the law does what it’s designed to do.”

Meanwhile, stimulus checks included as part of the COVID-19 relief bill are now hitting people’s accounts. KTRK reported today that some checks are arriving in bank accounts via direct deposit. Others may receive the $1400 as early as tomorrow. For those without direct deposit, the checks will be sent through the mail.

Inside Oprah’s Revealing Interview with Harry and Meghan

Photo from Harpo Productions.

By Terrance Turner

March 7, 2021

Tonight, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle sat down for a two-hour interview with Oprah Winfrey. The conversation, broadcast on CBS, shed light on the couple’s highly publicized exit from the Royal Family. The two-hour interview unearthed some never-before-heard information — and some bombshell revelations.

The first hour featured the former Duchess of Sussex in a solo interview with Oprah. Visibly pregnant, Markle reminisced on her courtship with Prince Harry and her entry into the Royal Family. “I went into it naively,” she said. “I didn’t do any research.” In fact, she wasn’t even aware of the protocol that would be required when she met Harry’s grandmother, Queen Elizabeth. She was in the car with Harry when Meghan realized she would have to curtsy before the Queen, as required. Outside the building where they were to have lunch, Meghan practiced what she called ” a very deep curtsy” with Harry (and former Duchess Sarah Ferguson).

“Apparently I did a very deep courtesy — I don’t remember it,” Meghan said. “It was lovely and easy and thank God I hadn’t known a lot about the family — I would have been so in my head about it.”

The couple’s wedding in May 2018 was one of the most celebrated events of the year. But it wasn’t the couple’s actual ceremony. In footage recorded during Oprah’s visit to their home, Meghan revealed that she and Harry had a secret wedding before the official televised nuptials. “Three days before our wedding, we got married,” she said, explaining that the couple wanted their wedding to be a private intimate moment for them, as opposed to the glitzy pomp and circumstance of the royal wedding for the world.

But shortly after the ceremony, the British tabloids kicked into overdrive. The press coverage was enormous and unrelenting. Six months after the wedding, a story surfaced that Meghan had made Duchess Kate Middleton cry. In fact, the reverse was true, Meghan says. Duchess Kate had been upset about dresses for the flower girls; Meghan was stressed about wedding planning. Meghan ended up crying. She didn’t want to elaborate, out of respect for Kate (whom she says apologized with flowers). “She’s a good person,” Meghan said.

She had similar sentiments about Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen “has always been wonderful to me,” Meghan said. But, she cautioned, there’s family, and then there’s “The Institution” — the numerous staff and public officials who keep the monarchy running. It was the institution, it seems, that Meghan had the most trouble with.

Oprah noted that Meghan Markle entered the monarchy as an American, an actress, a divorcee, and a biracial woman. Was she concerned about that as she became a royal? Had she thought about the impact of being the first mixed-race member of the royal family? “I thought about it because THEY made me think about it,” Meghan responded. But she added that all those parts of her identity worked for her. “Thank God I’d had that experience,” she said. “I’d always worked. I’d always been outspoken — especially about women’s rights. “I’ve always been outspoken about woman’s rights, I mean, that’s the sad irony of the last four years is that I’ve advocated for so long for women to use their voice, and then I was silent.”

“Were you silent, or were you silenced?” Oprah asked.

“The latter,” Meghan answered.

But how was she silenced? “Everyone in my world was given very clear directive… to always say no comment. My friends, my mom and dad,” Meghan testified. She added that “it was always through the lens of ‘we’ll protect you’.” But she slowly realized that wasn’t the case. “I came to understand that not only was I not being protected but that they were willing to lie to protect other members of the family. But they weren’t willing to tell the truth to protect me and my husband.”

And that wasn’t the worst of it. The former duchess told Oprah that “there was very little I was allowed to do.” An example: she’d ask, “Can I have lunch with my friends?’ The answer from the institution: “No, you’re over-saturated. We think it’s best that you don’t leave the house.” But “I’ve left the house twice in four months. I am everywhere but I am nowhere.” She compared the experience to the lockdowns in 2020, spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The story about her supposed rift with Kate Middleton was a turning point, Markle said. But her pregnancy was a major tipping point. While then-Duchess Meghan was expecting her first child with Harry, things took an ugly turn. During her pregnancy, “that was when they were saying that they didn’t want him to be a prince — or princess; they didn’t know what the gender was — and saying that he wasn’t going to be protected,” she says today. In fact, there was even talk that the baby (the unborn son, Archie) wouldn’t have the protection of royal security.

It was this issue that produced perhaps the biggest bombshell of the night — so explosive that it shocked even Oprah. “In those months when I was pregnant — all around that time,” Meghan said, “we have, in tandem, the conversation of: he won’t be given security, he’s not going to be given a title, and also concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be when he’s born.”

“What?” Oprah asked, her mouth open in shock. “Who is having that conversation with you?”

Oprah is all of us. Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

“There’s a conversation with you–“

“With Harry,” Meghan interjected.

“–about how dark your baby is going to be?”

“Potentially, and what that would mean or look like,” Meghan answered.

“And you’re not going to tell me who had that conversation.”

“I think that would be very damaging for them,” Meghan replied.

Reaction on Twitter was explosive:

Things got worse from there. The relentless attacks from the British press (some of them racist and baldly untrue) combined with the strain of life as a working royal left the Duchess feeling isolated and lonely. When she went to “the institution” for help, she was told that they couldn’t help because she wasn’t “a paid member” of the monarchy. “I just didn’t see a solution,” she recalled. “I would sit up at night and I was just like, ‘I don’t understand how all of this [tabloid coverage] is being churned out. And again, I wasn’t seeing it,” she said. But “my mom or my friends and them calling me crying , like, ‘Meg, they’re not protecting you.’ And I realized that all of it was happening just because I was breathing.”

“I was ashamed to say it at the time and ashamed to have to admit it to Harry. But I knew that if I didn’t say it, then I would do it,” Markle said. “I just didn’t want to be alive anymore.” She was having suicidal thoughts, she revealed. And when she went to “The Institution,” a group of people working for the Palace, to ask for help, she was rebuffed. Markle needed assistance with going somewhere to get mental health treatment. “They told me I couldn’t. They told me that it wouldn’t be good for the institution.” Meghan Markle was suicidal (while pregnant!) and the Institution told her there was nothing they could do.

And she wasn’t in a position to go it alone. “I couldn’t just call an Uber to the palace,” she explained. “My passport, my driver’s license, my keys — all of that was turned over. I didn’t see any of that anymore.” With few options, the Duchess turned to her husband. Prince Harry was seriously concerned about her welfare. But the same day she informed him of her spiraling condition, the two had an event at the Royal Albert Hall. He said, “I don’t think you should go.” She replied, “I can’t be left alone.” And so they went.

That moment led Meghan to a crucial insight. “You have no idea what’s going on for someone behind closed doors,” she told Oprah. “You have no idea — even the people that smile the biggest smiles, and shine the brightest lights, it seems.” The comments underscored what was clearly a moment of profound sadness.

Happily, when the former Duke of Sussex joined his wife for the interview, there were some moments of levity. When Prince Harry joined Meghan Markle for a joint interview, the two revealed that they’re having a baby girl! Their daughter is expected to arrive sometime this summer. This will be their second child — and their last. “Done,” Harry said. “Two is it,” Meghan confirmed.

With that established, the interview delved deeper into the couple’s exhaustively reported exit from the Royal Family. After repeated requests for help went unfulfilled, Harry and Meghan needed a breather. When Oprah asked him point-blank about the reason for the exodus, Prince Harry answered: “Lack of support, and lack of understanding.” The exit was portrayed as an impetuous decision that blindsided both the Queen and the royals at large.

“Did you blindside the Queen?” Oprah asked.

The answer was no. “I never blindsided my grandmother. I have too much respect for her,” Harry replied. “When we were in Canada, I had three conversations with my grandmother and two conversations with my father, before he stopped taking my calls.” Eventually, the prince took matters into his own hands, leaving the U.K. with Meghan and Archie.

They initially relocated to Canada, which is a Commonwealth country. (Queen Elizabeth is also Queen of Canada, by the way). The couple had hoped to continue their work in support of the monarchy there. But their security was removed, due to a “change in status”. Neither Meghan nor Archie had protection. But nor did Harry. “I never thought I would have my security removed because I was born into this, I inherited the risk,” he said. The removal of security deeply troubled Harry, whose late mother Princess Diana was hounded by the press (a factor in her untimely death). “My biggest concern was history repeating itself,” Harry said.

Meghan, on the other hand, was concerned about her husband. She says she wrote letters to the royals, asking them not to remove Harry’s security. “I see the death threats, I see the racist propaganda. Please keep my husband safe,” she recalls writing. But the pleas fell on deaf ears. And the racism inherent in the media’s treatment of Meghan also deepened rifts between Harry and his family.

“The family very much have the mentality of: this is how it is, this is how it’s meant to be, you can’t change it, we’ve all been through it. What was different for me was the race element,” Harry told Oprah. “That was the trigger for me.” He pointed out that 72 female members of Parliament signed an open letter criticizing the “outdated, colonial undertones” of press coverage of Meghan. “Yet no one in my actual family said anything over the course of three years,” he said. And when he and Meghan finally did become independent, it came with a cost.

The couple brokered a lucrative Netflix deal in September….because they needed money to support themselves. When asked about the Netflix and Spotify deals, the prince insisted that they hadn’t been strategic. “That was never part of the plan,” Harry said. “That was suggested to me by somebody else after my family literally cut me off financially.” How is he supporting himself? “I’ve got what my mum left me, and without that we would not have been able to do this,” Harry revealed.

Speaking of family, Harry’s relationship with this is…complicated. “I have a really good relationship with my grandmother,” he told Oprah. As for his father? “I will always love him, but there’s a lot of hurt that’s happened, and I will continue to make it one of my priorities to try and heal that relationship.” What about Prince William, his brother? “I love William to bits. He’s my brother. We’ve been through hell together.” But as for the relationship? Right now, they’re taking “space”, Harry said.

UPDATE (March 9, 2021): As the interview aired in Britain, it sparked a range of reactions throughout the country. Perhaps most notable was the response from the royal family. Buckingham Palace issued a statement, quoted by NBC News. “The whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan,” the palace said, breaking its silence more than 40 hours after the interview first aired in the U.S. on Sunday night. “The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately,” the statement added. “Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much loved family members.”

The British press, which was implicated heavily in the mistreatment of Harry and Meghan, reacted with great interest and activity. According to the Hollywood Reporter, “All the major British news networks and newspapers led with wall-to-wall coverage of the CBS special.” The Daily Mail, in particular, was frenzied in its coverage: after dismissing the interview as a “sideshow” in the days leading up to Sunday, the British tabloid dedicated over 20 stories to it.

The interview also drew the ire of Good Morning Britain host Piers Morgan, who has written columns for the Daily Mail. Morgan has long been a critic of Markle’s; the two were initially friendly, but he claims she “ghosted” him. In 2018, he commented: “We had two hours in a pub. She had a couple of dirty martinis and a couple of pints. We got along brilliantly. Then I put her in a cab. And it turned out to be a cab that took her to a party where she met Prince Harry. And then the next night, they had a solo dinner together and that was the last I ever heard from Meghan Markle. And I have never heard from her again. Meghan Markle ghosted me.”

Even since then, Morgan has gone above and beyond to attack the former duchess. When she and Harry stepped away from royal duties in 2020, Morgan commented: “Only surprised it took her so long to get Harry to ditch his family, the monarchy, the military and his country. What a piece of work.” He later accused of Meghan of “doing huge damage to our Royal Family.” On Sunday night, he wrote: “This interview is an absolutely disgraceful betrayal of the Queen and the Royal Family. I expect all this vile, destructive, self-serving nonsense from Meghan Markle – but for Harry to let her take down his family and the Monarchy like this is shameful.”

But Morgan’s recent comments may have gone too far. On yesterday’s Good Morning Britain, Morgan landed in hot water over callous commentary. In response to Markle’s revelation about suicidal thoughts, Morgan said: “I’m sorry, I don’t believe a word she said — Meghan Markle. I wouldn’t believe it if she read me a weather report.”

Morgan’s comments drew widespread condemnation…

…including some from his own co-host. This morning, his Good Morning Britain co-presenter Alex Beresford laid into Morgan, accusing him of “trashing” Markel over a romantic rejection: “I understand that you don’t like Meghan Markle. You’ve made it so clear a number of times on this programme, a number of times. And I understand that you had a personal relationship with Meghan Markle — or had one — and she cut you off. She’s entitled to cut you off if she wants to. Has she said anything about you since she cut you off? I don’t think she has. But yet you continue to trash her.”

“OK. I’m done with this,” Morgan said, as he got up to leave. As Bereford protested, Morgan walked off the set, saying: “Sorry. You can trash me maybe, but not on my own show. See you later.”

Now, word has broken that Morgan is leaving the show permanently. ITV confirmed today that Morgan quit the “Good Morning Britain” program on Tuesday after making contentious comments about Meghan following her bombshell interview about the royal family. According to the Associated Press, “The U.K.’s media watchdog said earlier Tuesday that it was launching an investigation into the show under its harm and offense rules after receiving more than 41,000 complaints over Morgan’s comments about the Duchess of Sussex.”

Senate Passes COVID-19 Relief Bill

Photo courtesy of Senate Television (via AP).

By Terrance Turner

March 6, 2021

By a 50-49 vote, the Senate has passed President Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill.

The legislation, known as the American Rescue Act, passed around 11:30 am — without any Republican support. (Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, was absent for the vote because of a family emergency, according to NBC News.) Democrats advanced the package through the budget reconciliation process, meaning it did not require any Republican support to pass. However, that process prevented Democrats from including a provision to increase the minimum wage to $15/hour in the legislation. The Senate parliamentarian ruled last month that the wage increase could not be a part of the bill.

There was high drama on Capitol Hill as the legislation was prepared. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) sparked a minor panic yesterday when he expressed reservation about the unemployment checks. In the end, Democrats — with virtually no room for error — compromised to get his support. Instead of $400 a week through the end of September, the checks will be $300 a week through Sept. 6. After uniting against the bill, Senate Republicans forced dozens of votes overnight into Saturday on amendments in an effort to stall the process.

The bill’s passage came after a marathon session by lawmakers. According to the Associated Press, the Senate had been in session since 9 a.m. EST Friday. But after hours and hours of debate and negotiations, the $1.9 trillion bill passed. It next heads to the House for final approval. If that occurs, the bill will be signed into law by President Joe Biden, marking his first major legislative victory as president.

“This bill will deliver more help to more people than anything the federal government has done in decades,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said just before final passage. “This is the most progressive [legislation] in a generation,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The massive relief package provides $1,400 checks to Americans making up to $75,000 a year. For married couples who file their taxes jointly, both would qualify for the full amount if they make up to $150,000 jointly, per NBC News. (Couples would therefore get $2,800.) MSNBC’s Kyle Griffin adds that the package also includes an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit. Additionally, there’s a permanent increase of $130 million/year for child care assistance.

According to Axios, the bill’s highlights include:

  • Expanded federal funding for COVID programs, including $46 billion for testing and tracing; $7.6 billion for pandemic response at community health centers; $5.2 billion to support research, development and manufacturing of vaccines, therapeutics and other medical products; and $7.7 billion to expand the public health care workforce.
  • $1,400 stimulus payments for most Americans.
  • $128.6 billion to help K-12 schools reopen.
  • $350 billion in state and local aid.
  • $25 billion in aid to restaurants and other food and drinking establishments.
  • $19 billion in emergency rental assistance.
  • $7.25 billion in funds for Paycheck Protection Program loans.

In the wake of the successful passage of this legislation, many observers are thanking Stacey Abrams. After a narrow loss in Georgia’s governor race, Abrams launched Fair Fight 2018, a voting rights organization to promote fair elections around the country. Fair Fight encourages voter participation and educates voters about their rights. The organization raised $34.5 million in just 39 days from late October to the last week of November, funneling a large chunk of the money into helping Democratic candidates, per the Atlanta-Journal Constitution.

It was Abrams’ efforts that helped re-enfranchise Georgia voters. Vox credited her with helping a record surge of Georgia voters to the polls in November. “Abrams’s group Fair Fight and other voting rights groups like the New Georgia Project have been putting a ton of effort into registering and turning out Black voters at high rates this year. And those efforts have been successful. The state has already hit record registration levels, with about 7.6 million voters registered. And since early voting started, more than 2.7 million voters have cast ballots — at least 1 million of whom were Black.”

That increase in Black voter turnout helped power the Democrats’ success in Georgia’s Senate elections in January. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff both won their races, defeating incumbent Republicans. Those two wins put the Senate at a 50-50 tie, with Vice President Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote. This legislation would not have passed if not for those two seats in Georgia (and Abrams’ efforts).

Gov. Greg Abbott Announces Texas Will Open “100 Percent”

Photo courtesy of Twitter.

By Terrance Turner

March 2, 2021 (UPDATED March 3)

Today, Texas Governor Greg Abbott made a game-changing announcement.

In remarks delivered live from Lubbock, Gov. Abbott touted the state’s economy: “If Texas were its own country, it would still have the ninth largest economy in the world.” But due to the pandemic, he said, the economy has suffered. “Too many Texans have been sidelined from employment opportunities. too many small business owners have struggled to pay their bills. This must end,” Gov. Abbott said. And then, he said:

“It is now time to open Texas 100 percent.”

“Everybody who wants to work should have that opportunity. Every business that wants to be open should be open,” the governor declared, adding that “we are in a completely different position” than when he issued an executive order last March. Back then, Texans didn’t even know what PPE was, he said. He highlighted the tests and therapeutics that have become available over the past year, as well as the protective measures citizens have adopted. “Texans have mastered the daily habits to avoid getting COVID. But most importantly,” he said, “in Texas and across the country, we now have vaccines — vaccines to protect Texans from COVID.” More than 5.7 million vaccine shots have been administered in Texas, he claimed.

Gov. Abbott further promised that “by the end of this month, every senior who wants a vaccine shot will be able to get a vaccine shot.” Hospitalizations in Texas are the lowest they’ve been in four months. The same goes for the positivity rate, he said. (According to the Associated Press, “the seven-day rolling average of positive tests has dropped to about 7,600 cases, down from more than 10,000 in mid-February.”) The number of active COVID cases are the lowest they’ve been since November, the governor claimed.

Gov. Abbott cautioned that the virus has not disappeared. But state mandates are no longer needed, he says. Today, he is issuing an executive order that rescinds most of the previous orders he issued. And Gov. Abbott took his already bold pronouncement one step further: “Effective next Wednesday, all businesses, of any type, are allowed to open 100 percent. That includes any type of entity in Texas. Also, I am ending the statewide mask mandate.”

Abbott stressed that personal responsibility is still necessary regarding the spread of COVID-19. Personal vigilance is crucial, he stated: “Each person has their own role to play in their own personal safety, as well as in the safety of others.” Nevertheless, he asserted that the statewide mandates are no longer necessary. Businesses are free to continue capacity limits for safety, he said, but the governor added that “people and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate.”

Abbott tempered his bold order with one caveat: if the positivity rate of counties and cities rises above 15% for seven straight days, a county judge may take action of mitigation strategies like a mask mandate. (Though it remains under 15%, the positivity rate is up 63% from October 2020: from 8.3% on Oct. 7 to 13.5% today, on March 2). However, nobody can be arrested, fined, or otherwise penalized for breaking rules on masks.

Texas is the latest (and largest) of the states to ease COVID-19 restrictions, as cases and hospitalizations drop. (North Dakota, Montana and Iowa have also lifted mask orders in recent weeks.) But the AP reports that only California and New York have reported more COVID-19 deaths than Texas. According to the New York Times, Texas has been averaging about 7,600 new cases a day recently, a figure that rebounded after a drop in February when testing was disrupted by a severe winter storm. It is among the top 10 states in recent spread, relative to the size of its population.

Significantly, Gov. Abbott delivered his remarks from a Mexican restaurant — on the 185th anniversary of Texas declaring independence from Mexico in 1836.

As you might have guessed, the move is sparking a lot of reaction. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a statement that reads, in part: “Taking away critical public health interventions that we know are working won’t make our community safer, nor will it hasten our return to normalcy. Quite the opposite: every time public health measures have been pulled back, we’ve seen a spike in hospitalizations […] With the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines, we’re inching closer to the finish line of this pandemic – now is not the time to reverse the gains we’ve worked so hard to achieve. At best, today’s decision is wishful thinking. At worst, it is a cynical attempt to distract Texans from the failures of state oversight of our power grid.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner agreed, tweeting today: “Is the Governor’s statement today an attempt to deflect from the winter storm systemwide state leadership failure? Yes.” He made his feelings even clearer when speaking with reporters today. “I don’t feel defeated. I feel disappointed about the governor’s decision,” Turner said. He expressed frustration with the move, writing on Twitter: “Every time we start moving in the right direction the Governor steps in and sets us back and makes all of our jobs harder. He minimizes the sacrifices of people and businesses. I just don’t get it.” He also tweeted the following:

Mayor Turner and Judge Hidalgo sent Gov. Abbott a letter today that reads, in part: “Supported by our public health professionals, we believe it would be premature and harmful to lose adoptions of this preventative measure [mask-wearing]. Scientific studies have shown repeatedly that the widespread wearing of face masks slows down the spread of the virus.” The letter includes mask wearing as one of several activities (frequent handwashing and keeping physical distances of at least six feet) that can reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 cases in Texas have dropped dramatically since last month, according to ABC 13 Houston. However, hospitalizations for the virus have jumped by 59% (from 3,519 cases on Oct. 7 to 5,611 today). Deaths from COVID-19 have nearly doubled: from 119 on Oct. 7 to 227 deaths today. Tonight, on his show, journalist Anderson Cooper revealed that Texas has only vaccinated 6.8% of its citizens — one of the lowest rates in the country. (By contrast, neighboring New Mexico has vaccinated over 12% of the residents there.) Over 40,000 Texans have died from COVID-19, according to the AP.

Tonight, Dr. Peter Hotez appeared on Anderson Cooper 360 to discuss the problem. (Dr. Hotez is the Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology & Microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine, where he is also Director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.) When asked about the governor’s actions, Dr. Hotez didn’t mince words: “We’ve got some rough sledding ahead of us.” Dr. Hotez pointed out that the UK variant of COVID-19 is “accelerating” (and one of five variants in Texas, per ABC), meaning potentially greater transmission and mortality.

When Cooper asked why the vaccination rate is so low, Dr. Hotez noted that “we lost a week” due to the winter storm in February. But the doctor also pointed out that Texas is a massive state, with 30 million residents (some of whom live in remote areas, making them hard to reach). He also expressed confusion about the urgency behind Gov. Abbott’s decision. When asked directly by Cooper why Abbott made the decision, Dr. Hotez admitted he didn’t know. “I don’t understand the urgency,” he said, in part.

UPDATE (March 3, 2021): Reaction continues to pour in, and the governor’s decision was discussed today on The View. co-host Sara Haines pointed out that Texas has one of the worst vaccination rates in the country — trailed by only two other states. She questioned why Abbott insisted on both opening businesses and removing mask mandates.

On ABC’s “Eyewitness News” at 11 am, anchor Art Rascon highlighted the fact that, though the state mask mandate is gone, President Biden’s federal mandate remains in place. That means that anyone on federal property (including airports) is still required to wear masks. Furthernore, several Texas businesses reserve the right to require masks and refuse service to those who don’t comply. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo added that failure to comploy may incur criminal charges:

BREAKING: President Joe Biden has offered his first public comments on Gov. Abbott’s decision. “I think it’s a big mistake,” Biden said. “Masks make a difference … The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking.”

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” Sheds Light on a Little-Known Piece of Black History

By Terrance Turner

Feb. 28, 2021

Tonight, singer Andra Day won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama for her portrayal of jazz singer Billie Holiday in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”. The Hulu film, directed by Lee Daniels, dramatizes how Holiday was hounded by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics for her landmark song “Strange Fruit”.

The song, based on a poem by writer Abel Meeropol, depicts the widespread practice of lynching; the hanging of Black people was a common practice in the American South between the 1860s and 1960s. It was an unflinching description of the brutality that Black people often experienced: “The poem was inspired by a photograph of the lynching of two young black men in Indiana,” writes Guardian journalist Edwin Moore. “Copies of such photographs were very popular in the American South, and the images can be easily found on the web […] In many cases, the hanged victims are surrounded by smiling white people waving at the camera. They sometimes have their children with them. The horrible truth is that in parts of the South in the early 20th century, the hanging of black people in public was a family occasion; lynching was part of the social fabric.” It was that practice outlined in the lyrics of the song:

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black body swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Meeropol wrote the poem in 1937, around the same time that a Senate bill meant to end lynching in the U.S. failed to pass. Meeropol brought the poem to Cafe Society, a club in New York City’s Greenwich Village. It had already been set to music, but it was Holiday’s version that would linger in the minds of listeners. Meeropol called her version “a startling, most dramatic, and effective interpretation.” Daniels depicts Day singing “Strange Fruit” in close-up, with lines about “a fruit for the crows to pluck / For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck / For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop / Here is a strange and bitter crop.”

The song became controversial; many club owners later refused to let her perform the song. But Holiday refused to back down. “‘Fruit’ goes a long way in telling how they mistreat Negroes down South,” she once said. The film depicts the tension between her husband James Monroe, manager Joe Glazer, and Holiday over the song. In one scene, Glazer decides to remove the song from Holiday’s setlist. “I’ve scratched it,” he tells her bluntly. Holiday protests that she should be allowed to sing the song: “It’s important to me.” Besides, “People pay good money to hear me sing it.” (Indeed, her 1939 recording of the song sold over a million copies, becoming one of her best-known songs.)

Glazer retorts that it’s written by Abel Meeropol, “a commie”. “I don’t care,” Holiday responds. She accuses both Glazer and Monroe of being friends with Harry Anslinger (the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics). Anslinger decides to prosecute Holiday for the song. In a closed-door meeting with lawmakers, he insists that “this Holiday woman’s got to be stopped. She keeps singing this ‘Strange Fruit’ song, and it’s causing a lot of people to think the wrong things.”

“Why is this so important to you, Harry?” asks one man. (Anslinger might’ve responded that after the failure of Prohibition, his department was soon becoming obsolete. Instead, he uses Holiday’s drug problem (and racism) as justification: “Drugs and niggers are a contamination to our great American civilization.”

It is that basis on which the federal government begins harassing Holiday. On May 16, 1947, Holiday was arrested for possession of narcotics in her New York apartment. On May 27 she was in court. “It was called ‘The United States of America versus Billie Holiday’. And that’s just the way it felt,” she recalled. She was sentenced to 366 days in jail — one year and one day. Forced to go cold turkey in jail, she eventually lost her cabaret card, which forced her to perform in concert venues and large halls. It was one more indignity in Holiday’s existence, which was marked by sexual abuse, domestic violence, and a heroin addiction that ruined her voice and her life. She was arrested and handcuffed to her hospital bed shortly before her death from cirrhosis in 1959, aged just 44.

Tonight, Andra Day won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama for her uncanny portrayal of Holiday. The last Black woman to win in this category was Whoopi Goldberg in 1986. (She won for her wrenching performance as Celie in “The Color Purple”.)

President Biden Arrives in Houston

President Biden gets a hug from a young girl who was volunteering with her mom at the Houston Food Bank. Photo courtesy of Twitter (@dougmillsnyt).

By Terrance Turner

Feb. 26, 2021

BREAKING NEWS (12:00 pm): President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden have arrived at Ellington Airport. Upon leaving the plane, they were greeted by Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) as well as Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-TX), Cong. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D). The President and First Lady took separate vehicles; the President is reportedly headed to NRG Park, while Dr. Biden is heading to the Houston Food Bank, in northeast Houston. (As it turned out, the president also went to Houston Food Bank. There, he and the First Lady bagged up food to give to Houstonians, according to ABC 13 Houston.)

UPDATE: In a televised address at NRG Park, Biden updated the public about the COVID-19 vaccine efforts in the city of Houston. “I wanna show the American people the extraordinary effort,” he said. “It’s remarkable. About six thousand doses a day here.” People can call by phone, sign up online, drive up, stay in their cars, and get a shot, he explained. That requires massive logistical coordination.

“VP Harris and I did a virtual tour in Arizona,” Biden noted. One nurse told him she felt like she was administering “a dose of hope”. And that’s what Biden was offering in today’s address — along with a lot of information. He’s sent millions of vaccines to local pharmacies (over 7000) because people feel comfortable going there, Biden said. That includes 50 pharmacies here in Houston. Also: pop-up clinics are being deployed to rural areas “to meet folks where they live,” Biden said. Additionally, vaccines are being sent to community health centers, to reach diverse communities. As Biden noted, Black, Latino, and Native American populations have higher rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths than any other group.

COVID-19 hospitalizations are down; they’ve declined dramatically in recent weeks. But “I need to be honest with you,” Biden said. “Cases and hospitalizations could go up as new variants emerge. And it’s not the time to relax. We have to keep washing our hands, staying socially distant, and — for God’s sake — wear your mask. Wear your mask.” The president warned that “the worst thing we could do now is let our guard down.”

The president acknowledged the history that has many Black and brown Americans hesitant about the vaccine (i.e. the Tuskegee experiment). “There is a history in this country of subjugating certain communities to terrible medical and scientific abuse,” he said. “But if there’s one message that needs to cut through all of this: The vaccines are safe. I promise you. They’re safe and effective. Listen to Dr. Fauci. Listen to the scientists,” Biden urged. “I did. And I took my shot publicly to demonstrate to the American people that it’s safe and effective. To address this challenge, we’re gonna launch a massive campaign to educate people about the vaccines,” Biden said.

‘This past year has been one of the most painful years in American history,” Biden concluded. “I met today with Gov. Abbott, Sen. Cornyn — conservatives Republicans. I’m a Democratic president. There’s plenty of things we disagree on, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s a lot of things we can work on together.” One of them, Biden said, is the virus. “We’re not giving shots to Democrats or Republicans; we’re giving shots to Americans,” the president emphasized. “None of this has a a partisan tinge or a partisan element to it.”

Biden highlighted his connection to Houston. At Houston’s M.D. Anderson Clinic, the president’s son Beau Biden was treated when he had brain cancer. “We’re gonna beat cancer. I know we will,” Biden declared. He said if he could be known for one thing, it would be ending cancer as we know it. Biden also noted the landing of a Rover on Mars. That mission was in part developed by a team here in Houston. “We can do anything!” he exclaimed. “America can do anything.”

“Americans never give up, they never give in, they never cry uncle — they just struggle, innovate, and they preserve — and persevere,” Biden said. “God bless you all, and may God protect our troops. You’re the best.”