Christmas after a hurricane: ‘We still must celebrate the holidays’

Residents in Puerto Rico and the Virgin islands, Houston and the Florida Keys talk about this years challenges shelter, electricity and good cheer to make the best of the holidays

For seven weeks in autumn, images of homes in ruins, trees stripped bare and people wading through floodwaters dominated the news as hurricanes devastated the American south and Caribbean.

The US had never been hit in one hurricane season by storms as strong as Harvey, Irma and Maria, according to modern records, and the areas hit hardest by those intense storms are still far from recovery.

Quick guide

How can I help hurricane victims?

In all the affected regions, local nonprofits and churches continue to collect donations to aid in recovery efforts.

People donated $1m to the United Way in Florida Keys, including a person displaced by Harvey who sent $5 while still living in a shelter in Texas. The nonprofit disbursed much of the money to local charities that provide food, shelter and utilities to people hit hard by Irma including theFlorida Keys Children’s Shelter.

TheUnidos disaster relief and recovery programfor Puerto Rico has provided water filtration systems, medical support, meals, solar lamps, mosquito nets and other supplies to more than 500,000 Puerto Ricans. More than 175,000 people from all 50 US states and 23 countries donated to the group, which has delivered 3.4m lbs of food and water across the island.

In Houston, mayor Sylvester Turner and County Judge Ed Emmett have established theHurricane Harvey Relief Fund.

In Houston and the Florida Keys, thousands of people still dont have homes. In Puerto Rico, full electricity services have not been restored and those that have power know it can go out at any moment. At least 200 people were killed on the US mainland in the storms and the death toll in Puerto Rico is expected to be hundreds of people higher than the 64 reported by the islands government.

Other islands in the Caribbean were also badly hit.

These catastrophic events unleashed death and destruction but also an outpouring of support from people with no connection to the regions affected. As the holiday season approaches, nonprofits leading the recovery continue to see significant donations that will help provide food, water and shelter to those still in need.

Three months since the trio of storms unleashed life-threatening rain and winds, the Guardian spoke with people on the frontlines of the recovery.

A unique Christmas tree in Vega Alta. Photograph: Norbert Figueroa for the Guardian

Puerto Rico: Christmas lights brighten the dark

Residents like Jessica Fontnez are decorating their houses and powering them with the aid of portable gas-powered generators.

I debated whether to decorate or not since we have no power, but I got motivated to do it right after my nine-year-old daughter asked me, Mom, if we dont have a Christmas tree, where will Santa put all the presents? Now I just use the generator to turn it on for a few hours every day, said Fontnez, who lives in the Caguas municipality.

Fontnez has also moved her traditional Christmas dinner to lunchtime to reduce the impact on her generator.

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At least 100,000 Puerto Ricans have left the island but the 3.3 million who remain have adapted their lives, and now Christmas traditions, to the limits imposed by the storm. Christmas specialities like roasted pork, pasteles and Ron Caita are only available at premium prices and traditionally festive city squares are withholding Christmas decorations because government funds are supporting recovery efforts. The darkness has also inspired debates about decorating with Christmas lights.

In the Vega Alta municipality, the local government did not have money to use on Christmas decorations so it transformed wooden scraps, metal panels and other debris into Christmas trees, ornaments, traditional miniature homes, and cheerful boards. A dead white indigo berry tree that toppled during the storm was placed in the center of the square.

Quick guide

Tropical storm Harvey and climate change

Is there a link between the storm and climate change?

Almost certainly, according to astatementissued by the World Meteorological Organization on Tuesday. Climate change means that when we do have an event like Harvey, the rainfall amounts are likely to be higher than they would have been otherwise, the UN organisations spokeswoman Clare Nullis told a conference. Nobody is arguing that climate change caused the storm, but it is likely to have made it much worse.

How did it make it worse?

Warmer seas evaporate more quickly. Warmer air holds more water vapour. So, as temperatures rise around the world, the skies store more moisture and dump it more intensely. The US National Weather Service has had to introduce a new colour on its graphs to deal with the volume of precipitation. Harvey surpassed the previous US record for rainfall from a tropical system, as 49.2 inches was recorded at Marys Creek at Winding Road in Southeast Houston, at 9.20am on Tuesday.

Is this speculation or science?

There is a proven link known as theClausius-Clapeyron equation that shows that for every half a degree celsius in warming, there is about a 3% increase in atmospheric moisture content. This was a factor in Texas. The surface temperature in the Gulf of Mexico is currently more than half a degree celsius higher than the recent late summer average, which is in turn more than half a degree higher than 30 years ago,accordingtoMichael Mannof Penn State University. As a result there was more potential for a deluge.

Are there other links between Harvey and climate change?

Yes, the storm surge was greater because sea levels have risen 20cm as a result of more than 100 years of human-related global warming. This has melted glaciers and thermally expanded the volume of seawater.

Its free, natural, and local. It looks like a corpse, but what can we do, said Juan Negrn, a resident of Vega Alta who helped deliver the tree to the square. Negrn smiled as he explained how this Christmas reminds him of his childhood holidays in the 1960s, when a small white indigo berry tree, or Tintillo as its known locally, would be decorated like a Christmas tree.

Technologically, weve gone over 15 years back in time after the hurricane. This tree represents that. Still, we must celebrate the holidays; its a tradition we must not lose. We cant stop celebrating because of these natural occurrences, said Negron.

The dead white indigo berry tree in Vega Alta. Photograph: Norbert Figueroa for the Guardian

Three months after Hurricane Maria carved a trail of destruction across Puerto Rico, the island remains cloaked in darkness, with electricity services not expected to be restored until early next year. People there are living in a lingering disaster zone, with acts of daily life defined by the recovery: food cant be stored in refrigerators, traffic lights dont work in many places and restaurants, malls and bars remain shuttered.

Many Puerto Ricans have questioned the sensibility of adding unnecessary energy consumption to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa), especially when so many people still dont have reliable access to a generator, or the money to pay for one.

Prepas director of occupational safety and health, Shehaly Rosado Flores, said extra energy consumption generated by Christmas decorations does not affect their efforts to restore power across the island.

The US Army Corp of Engineers estimated that power would not fully be restored to Puerto Rico until the end of May a full eight months since Maria hit. The most remote areas will likely be the last to have power restored.

There is not enough you can say about the need for electricity. You cant operate society without it, said Jos Caldern, president of the Hispanic Federation, which created the Unidos disaster relief and recovery program for Puerto Rico.

Unidos has provided water filtration systems, medical support, meals, solar lamps, mosquito nets and other supplies to more than 500,000 Puerto Ricans. More than 175,000 from all 50 states and 23 countries donated to the group, which has delivered 3.4mn lbs of food and water across the island.

Caldern said he was uplifted by how many people donated, including people who have no connection to the island and children as young as three and four who he said had sent their allowance. But, three months on from Maria, he is still frustrated by the federal governments response. Caldern said: It is actually criminal what our federal government has done in Puerto Rico.

Houston, Texas: All I want for Christmas is housing

Electricity returned to Houston days after Hurricane Harvey hit, but cheer was still in short supply when two-dozen Houstonians rallied outside City Hall in mid-December to sing a festive song with a twist: All I want for Christmas is housing.

Christmas Day marks exactly four months since Hurricane Harvey made landfall about 200 miles south-west of Houston, dropping 50-odd inches of rain over parts of southeast Texas and causing widespread flooding.

Across the state about 900,000 people applied for federal assistance. Tens of thousands of people in Houston were forced out of their homes. While life is back to normal in much of the area, plenty of properties remain unusable and many residents are still in hotels and other forms of temporary accommodation.

People make their way onto an I-610 overpass after being rescued from flooded homes during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on 27 August 2017 in Houston, Texas. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas Babineaux and his wife, Julie, who have an 18-year-old son, were among those who gathered to call on the city council to distribute more federal relief money quickly to fund housing for low-income families.

They had hoped to move into an apartment in time for Christmas after spending a month in a hotel. They did not leave their home when it was flooded, he said, because they had nowhere else to go. But mould and mildew quickly grew and the couple developed respiratory problems.

After losing all their possessions, it is hard to find money for presents. We had to start out fresh, said Julie, who has breast cancer. We cant really celebrate because weve got to find a way to get a place to stay.

Some displaced families discovered that moving out of flooded places created a new set of challenges. Elsa Bazaldua came to Houston after her apartment in the coastal town of Rockport, a three-hour drive away, was wrecked. But the home where she currently lives with her husband and four children, paying $650 a month in rent after signing a one-year lease, is poorly maintained and the cost of water is extortionate, she said, clutching a bill for $189. She is a cleaner, though not working at the moment, and her husband works in construction. I dont know if were even going to do Christmas this year, she said through a translator.

A home surrounded by floodwaters in Spring, Texas. Photograph: David J Phillip/AP

Willie Fegans loves hosting her three daughters and grandchildren for Christmas dinner but this year she is skipping the family tradition. The apartment where she lived for three years with her husband flooded up to knee height and after a spell in a hotel a charity found them a unit at an apartment complex. But the 61-year-old does not feel safe. Im scared to stay there because every day theyre out there shooting, she said. I wont take my family there. Too much violence. I was at home cooking and I heard what I thought was two cars crashing, I went to the door and it was a dude shooting at another guy, he hit a sign and lost control.

They sleep on the floor because they are worried that a stray bullet might fly through the window and hit them while they are in bed, she said.

On Christmas Day, she added, Ill probably go to one of my daughters houses. Bullets dont have no name, dont have no eyes, my family could be there and they could be out there shooting and somebody in my family could get killed. I dont want to take that chance. I havent even thought about gifts for Christmas because Im too busy worrying about getting somewhere to live thats safe.

Festively decorated boats in Key West, Florida on 15 December 2017. Photograph: Carol Tedesco/AP

The Florida Keys: Christmas is more powerful this year

Hurricane Irma skirted Puerto Rico days before making landfall in Florida, where the Keys bared the brunt of the Category 4 hurricane destruction.

Tourist hotspot Key West emerged with minimal damage but three months out from the storm, other Keys islands are still recovering from the housing crisis the storm left behind.

Thousands were displaced from Big Pine Key, Cudjoe Key, Marathon and Ramrod Key where many people lived in mobile homes, houseboats or vulnerable homes that were not up to modern property codes. For some families its probably going to be a year before they are rebuilt, have a place again, said Bill Mann, co-ceo of the Florida Keys Childrens Shelter.

Mann said families are split because people have moved to the mainland, but have jobs in the keys or vice versa or are working more jobs to survive. Mann said one young boy the shelter assisted told them the one thing he wanted most for Christmas was to see his dad, a single father, more often because he is now working a second job.

Damaged homes in Cudjoe Key, Florida on 17 September 2017. Photograph: Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Floridians have donated many toys to the shelter so Mann expected the children the shelter helps will all have presents to open on Christmas day, but families still desperately need grocery gift cards and home improvement gift cards. And tourism, Mann said, because it is a foundation of the regions economy. Caribbean islands that suffered in the storm also rely on tourism and are encouraging people to visit to aid the recovery.

In Big Pine Key, the rebuilding effort is also coming from informal social media networks.

Herv Thomas, who has lived in Big Pine Key since 1998, created a Facebook group to help coordinate the communitys response to Irma. For Christmas, the group organized a surprise for 12 families, including 32 children, hit hard by the hurricane Santa Claus at their door in a fire truck, delivering presents donated by community members.

Last week, a woman who assists children in the domestic abuse system said she needed Christmas presents for seven children. Within three hours people had responded with donations, including paying for a meal for the caretaker.

You cant block good when its on its path, Thomas said.

His home was perfectly intact after the hurricane but just 100ft away, a neighbors home was completely destroyed. He said Big Pine Key looked like a warzone immediately after Irma and that feeling remains in some of the devastated homes.

There are fewer decorations around the Keys and fewer homes to fill with Christmas trees, but Thomas said he felt this Christmas was more powerful than in years past.

You can feel there is something, Thomas said. If I think about it I believe its maybe an answer to the strength of what we went through.

He continued to say Christmas provided some relief. You can drop everything and say its Christmas.

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A civil rights ’emergency’: justice, clean air and water in the age of Trump

The Trump administration is peeling away rules designed to protect clean air and water, fueling a growing urgency around the struggle for environmental justice, say political leaders, academics and activists

The Trump administrations dismantling of environmental regulations has intensified a growing civil rights battle over the deadly burden of pollution on minorities and low-income people.

Black, Latino and disadvantaged people have long been disproportionately afflicted by toxins from industrial plants, cars, hazardous housing conditions and other sources.

Environmental Justice

But political leaders, academics and activists spoke of a growing urgency around the struggle for environmental justice as the Trump administration peels away rules designed to protect clean air and water.

What we are seeing is the institutionalization of discrimination again, the thing weve fought for 40 years, said Robert Bullard, an academic widely considered the father of the environmental justice movement.

There are people in fence-line communities who are now very worried. If the federal government doesnt monitor and regulate, and gives the states a green light to do what they want, we are going to get more pollution, more people will get sick. There will be more deaths.

Activists and some in Congress now view the blight of pollution as a vast, largely overlooked civil rights issue that places an unbearable burden on people of color and low-income communities.

Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, recently said: Civil rights have to include, fundamentally, the right to breathe your air, plant tomatoes in your soil. Civil rights is the right to drink your water.

If your children dont have access to clean air and water, all the ideals we preach in this country are a lie. Environmental justice must be at the center of our activism in our fight to make real the promise of America.

Who lives near superfund sites?
A superfund site is land in the US that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the EPA as a candidate for cleanup because of risks to human health, or the environment.

Last month, Booker unveiled new legislation, supported by a group of senators including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, that he said would help eliminate environmental injustice. The bill would require federal agencies to address the issue, force authorities to consider existing pollution when allowing new industrial facilities and hand individuals the power rto use the Civil Rights Act to sue over pollution.

Mustafa Ali, who helped create the Environmental Protection Agencys (EPA) office of environmental justice and worked there for 24 years, told the Guardian hes been alarmed by proposed EPA budget cuts and the federal governments heavily criticized response to the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Puerto Rico, which was struck by Hurricane Maria in September.

Eve Butler stands near a relatives home that is surrounded by oil storage facilities on all sides in St James, Louisiana, which has become known as cancer alley. Photograph: Lauren Zanolli for the Guardian

I left the EPA because of the proposals to roll back legislation that will have direct impacts on local communities, he said. Ten months in, they have yet to move forward any action to help communities be healthier. People in Puerto Rico are drinking toxic water. Unfortunately, so far, Ive been proved right in my decision to leave. I wanted them to prove me wrong.

The Trump administration has targeted dozens of regulations it says have stymied economic growth. It has moved to axe an Obama-era plan to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants, delayed new standards to cut toxic fumes from vehicles and dropped a proposed ban on a pesticide linked to developmental delays in children.

An EPA spokeswoman said the agency was pursuing commonsense reforms that reduce regulatory burden while maintaining environmental and public health protection. She said the agencys leadership was refocusing EPA on its core mission to tackle the most significant environmental and public health problems.

Under the nations environmental laws, the US has made great progress in cleaning up the air, land and water, she said. However, we acknowledge that many low-income, minority and tribal populations still bear a disproportionate burden of potential risk from sources of pollution.

The Trump administrations proposed budget outlined a plan to close the EPAs office of environmental justice, although this plan now appears to have been shelved with the office shifting to be directly under the purview of the EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt.

This move is a reaffirmation of administrator Pruitts commitment to the mission and goals of the agencys environmental justice program, said the EPA spokeswoman.

But Ali said there was little evidence the agency is focused on vulnerable communities, claiming it is a particular slap in the face that the EPA wants to cut funding for anti-lead programs given that the largely black city of Flint, Michigan, continues to suffer from lead-tainted water, three years after the scandal was exposed.

Recent high-profile controversies such as Flint, where a series of failures allowed lead to leach into the drinking supply, and the Dakota Access pipeline, where protestors in North Dakota have clashed with police over concerns the Standing Rock tribes water will be contaminated, have elevated the profile of environmental justice. But similar problems have dotted the US for years, often lingering stubbornly.

Booker recently embarked on a tour of festering environmental problems suffered largely by minorities, including a North Carolina community next to hog farms that spray untreated waste on to nearby fields, meaning that opening windows or hanging washing outdoors are risky endeavors. The industry dismisses these claims.

Booker also visited Uniontown, Alabama, which he said had been ruined by a giant industrial waste dump and the so-called cancer alley communities that live alongside an infamous corridor of petrochemical plants in Louisiana. But he said it wasnt necessary to travel far from his home state to understand the problem.

I became an environmentalist, I have to be candid with you, not because of the effects of global warming some time in the future, said Booker, a former mayor of Newark, New Jersey, at a time when the city was experiencing its own problems with lead contamination of drinking water. I became an environmentalist because I saw horrific examples of environmental injustice and how it was hurting my community in every single way.

Black communities are most exposed to solid waste facilities in North Carolina
Black communities are most exposed to solid waste facilities in North Carolina

Against the unusually industry-friendly approach adopted by the White House and EPA, as well as a Republican-controlled Congress, Bookers bill has little foreseeable chance of becoming law. But it signals a fresh determination by activists to put pollution on the same civil rights footing as other issues, such as criminal justice.

Its definitely moved up the priority list, said Ali. I wasnt around late 1960s and 1970s, but people talk about a spirit of civic engagement then. We are seeing a new round of that now.

Pollution in America. If the government doesnt monitor and regulate more people will get sick. There will be more deaths. Composite: AP, Getty Images & Rex Features

The roots of the environmental justice movement are diffuse, but a string of events in Houston, Texas, proved foundational. In 1967, an eight-year-old black girl drowned at a landfill dumping site that was placed in a heavily African-American neighborhood. Community members picketed the site, joining forces with other protesters who were agitating against racism in the citys schools.

A decade later, Bullard, then a sociologist at Texas Southern University, began to study the placement of toxic sites in Houston and discovered an alarming pattern. All five city-owned landfills and six out of eight city-owned incinerators were placed in black neighborhoods, despite black people making up just a quarter of Houstons population. Bullard said instead of Nimby politics, there was what he called Pibby (Place in blacks back yard).

US counties with the highest rates of heart attacks. Many health problems are linked to environmental pollution although a direct cause is rarely specifically identified.
US counties with the highest rates of heart attacks. Many health problems are linked to environmental pollution although a direct cause is rarely specifically identified.

I was shocked and angered by what I saw in Houston, Bullard said. I then started to look at Dallas, at Louisiana, at West Virginia, at Alabama. Houston wasnt atypical at all. Residential apartheid was happening everywhere.

Years of racist housing policies, tacitly and explicitly approved by government, and a lack of political clout made minorities close neighbors for manufacturing plants, landfills, power stations and other potentially toxic facilities. State-led pursuit of polluters, particularly in some southern states, has been tepid.

The environmental movement was initially slow to see its cause as being intertwined with civil rights. We love polar bears, birds and wetlands, but we also want to talk about children being poisoned by lead, said Dr Benjamin Chavis, a civil rights leader who was an assistant of Martin Luther King Jr.

We had a lot of education to do with very smart white people in the environmental movement. We had to call out their paternalism and racism. They said they dont deal with social issues, like breathing air was a niche social issue.

The issue of environmental justice, aided by the research of Bullard and many others since, is now both understood and persistent.

Of all the people who live within three miles of the most toxic sites in the US, known as superfund areas by the EPA, 46% are minorities a proportion far higher than the 37% national non-white population.

US counties with the highest rates of breast cancer. Many health problems are linked to environmental pollution although a direct cause is rarely specifically identified.
US counties with the highest rates of breast cancer. Many health problems are linked to environmental pollution although a direct cause is rarely specifically identified.

One in three Latinos live in areas that violate federal standards for ozone, a pollutant that causes smog and is linked to an array of health problems. The thousands of abandoned mines that dot the western US have left a legacy of soil and water contamination that blights native American tribes, such as the Navajo nation.

Nearly seven in 10 African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, compared with 56% of whites. Once the coal is burned, its ash, which can damage the nervous system and cause cancers if ingested or inhaled, is dumped in about 1,400 sites around the US 70% of which are situated in low-income communities.

Oil and gas operations also loom over many black neighborhoods, potentially exposing them to a stew of chemicals including benzene, sulfur dioxide and formaldehyde.

The effects of oil and gas pollution are disproportionately afflicting African Americans, particularly cancer and respiratory issues, and the trend is only increasing, said Dr Doris Browne, president of the National Medical Association.

Our membership is seeing far too many patients in communities of color suffering from these diseases. It is our goal to fight to reverse this dangerous trend.

More than 1 million African Americans live within half a mile of an oil or gas facility, according to research compiled by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Clean Air Task Force. An even larger black population around 6.7 million people live in a US county that also features an oil refinery.

The NAACP maintains that fence-line communities near industrial plants emerge when energy companies target certain neighborhoods that then enter a gloomy spiral that forces property values and traps residents. The organization has recently expanded its campaigning to focus on how communities of color are now bearing the brunt of natural disasters, such as the recent hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, that are supercharged by climate change.

The main factor is race poor whites do better than middle-class blacks, said Bullard. Housing discrimination is so entrenched in America that money doesnt buy you out of segregated neighborhoods.

People rally in front of Trump International Hotel during the Native Nations Rise protest in March. Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

A white person who is poor can put on a suit and tie and look for an apartment. They are seen as a regular person. A black person will meet discrimination, which drives who lives where and what is located there. You see this pattern all over parks and grocery stores and so on arent located in black neighborhoods. But pollution is.

Americas air is generally far more breathable and its water broadly safer to drink than the 1970s, but discrepancies remain, including among children, who are acutely susceptible to airborne particulates that cause respiratory problems and lead-laced water that can hinder development.

More than 14% of black children in the US have asthma, compared with 8% of white children. Black children are also much more likely than their white counterparts to be hospitalized due to the condition.

Pollution often lingers at both home and at school about one in 11 US public schools sit within 500ft of a highway or other major road. Studies have linked heavy traffic to childhood asthma.

Federal action began to ramp up in the early 1990s, with a small but dedicated environmental justice office opening within the EPA and the then president, Bill Clinton, penning an executive order demanding government agencies acknowledge the issue and deeming environmental racism as contrary to the Civil Rights Act.

The EPA has been repeatedly criticized since this point for its sluggish approach to protecting minority communities from insidious pollution, but the final year of the Obama administration saw a new plan to bolster environmental justice and beef up enforcement. These modest gains could now be snuffed out under a Trump presidency.

This administration has pushed us into the gutter

We had to struggle under George W Bush but we werent pushed into the gutter this administration has pushed us into the gutter, said a senior EPA official who recently departed the agency. These communities depend a lot on the EPA, they dont have much sustainability in them. I just hope we dont go so far back that we cant pull it around.

The prospect of a backwards step horrifies those who have already suffered from Americas pollution inequity. In 2002, Sheila Holt-Orsted noticed a cluster of cancers in her hometown of Dickson County, Tennessee, including her father and aunt. Babies were being born with deformities, such as cleft palates.

Since January, the White House, Congress and the EPA led by Scott Pruitt have engineered a reversal of regulations designed to protect the environment and public health. Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA

Despite being a healthy former bodybuilder who had since moved to Virginia, Holt-Orsted was worried enough to head to the doctor, who informed her she had stage two breast cancer.

Once I picked myself up off the floor, I felt I had to do something, so I decided to move home to find the common denominator, she said. By digging through county and state records, Holt-Orsted found out that a landfill, located less than a mile from her familys house, was leaking trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial solvent that is a known carcinogen and neurological toxin, into the drinking water supply at levels far higher than EPAs safety standards.

Not only was the landfill placed in the heart of Dickson Countys African-American enclave, which included the Holt-Orsteds, but the remediation of the issue was also drawn along racial lines. Holt-Orsted was handed records that showed official state letters were sent to white households warning of the contamination, while black families were sent letters claiming the water was safe to drink.

It was ignorance, it was racism, Holt-Orsted said. Our community was the sacrificial lamb for this landfill. What followed was a 10-year legal battle that finally forced the authorities to address the pollution and connect households to a clean water supply. Even then, some of the white people in the town said we were just some niggers looking for money, Holt-Orsted said.

The more recent water contamination in Flint was sickening, Holt-Orsted said, and she worries that further outrages will occur if regulations and enforcement is forgone in favor of industry-friendly bromides.

The Trump administration will have a huge affect on everyone, she said. Its scary to see how much they are siding with industry. All industry thinks about is how much money to make and thats exactly what happened in Dickson.

I had never heard of environmental racism until I was a victim of it. Its sickening that this is going on in America.

Data research by Mona Chalabi

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One drug dealer, two corrupt cops and a risky FBI sting

The long read: Davon Mayer was a smalltime dealer in west Baltimore who made an illicit deal with local police. When they turned on him, he decided to get out but escaping that life would not prove as easy as falling into it

On a humid summer day in 2004, Davon Mayer stepped out of his house on Bennett Place in the heart of Baltimore. Sixteen years old, Davon was short, plump and baby-faced, still more of a kid than an adolescent. Like many other boys in his neighbourhood, he had long since stopped going to school and was dealing drugs full-time.

On any other day, Davon would have been busy by this hour, trading vials of crack for cash on the pavement, keeping an eye out for the police. But this morning, he was on his way to meet with a narcotics detective named William King. Weeks earlier, the detective had arrested Davon after catching him selling drugs. He had taken Davon to the police station and then let him go, asking that Davon call him. When Davon failed to call, King had paid him a visit to let him know he wasnt playing around.

As Davon walked to a nearby strip mall where King had arranged to meet, his mind was weighed down by anxiety. What could a city detective possibly want from a small-time drug dealer such as himself? The only answer Davon could think of was that King wanted him to become an informant. The more Davon dwelled on that possibility, the more panicked he got. Where he came from, there was nothing worse than helping the police. To snitch on fellow drug dealers was to invite death.

He got to the malls parking lot and saw Kings pickup truck. King was sitting behind the wheel, dressed in sweatpants and a T-shirt. He asked Davon to get in the back seat and turned on the engine. I have been watching you, King said, as they drove around. I like the way you do business.

Growing up, Davons parents werent around much. His father, Marvin Bunk Nutter, spent much of his sons childhood in jail on robbery and murder charges. Davons mother, Tonya, spent some of those years in jail, too, for drug possession, and the rest on the streets, sustaining her crack addiction with prostitution. Davon reserved the word Ma for his grandmother, Norma, who had raised him, along with his sister and a cousin.

Norma was a small woman with a big presence, a matriarch to the entire block. She had fought her own battle with drug addiction when she was younger; at one point, her kids had been taken away by social services. When she finally overcame her addiction, she committed herself to discipline and order, toiling from morning till night to take care of her husband, a factory worker, and three grandkids. The entire block could be dirty and dishevelled but the front of 947 Bennett Place was always spick and span.

What Davon didnt know at the time was that Norma couldnt remain insulated from the world of drug dealing herself. Even though her husband earned enough for her to be able to feed and clothe the kids, she struggled to find the money to take care of their wants toys for Christmas, gifts on birthdays, an occasional afternoon out to the movies. And so she had to make a few bucks on her own. There were drug dealers in the neighbourhood who trusted Norma to keep their money safe for them, to provide a place where it wouldnt be stolen or discovered in a police raid. Dealers usually paid her a small amount for the service.

Davon Mayers old neighborhood in west Baltimore. Photograph: JM Giordano for the Guardian

Despite Normas best efforts, by the time Davon was about 11, he began to feel the pull of the drug business. He was growing more and more conscious of all the things he wanted that his grandmother couldnt give him. All the boys he knew in the neighbourhood seemed to own a pair of Nike Air Jordan sneakers, but not even in his wildest dreams could he ask Norma for the $100 it would cost to buy a pair.

Davon told a friend, AC, who worked for a dealer in west Baltimore, that he wanted to make some money. One morning, AC took Davon to see one of the dealers men, LJ, outside a row of apartment buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue. Davon felt himself trembling a little as LJ looked him over from head to toe. Then he handed Davon a sandwich bag with 50 vials of crack, each capped with a purple top.

Davon slid the pack of vials into his pocket as LJ and AC walked off. He stood nervously in the fenced passageway leading to the door of the apartment building, wondering what he would do if the cops came. Minutes later, a young woman with a sickly pallor came out of the apartment building; recognising him right away as the seller, she asked him for a vial. After Davon had sold to her, he turned around to find a crowd of at least a dozen other buyers waiting on the sidewalk. The pack was gone within minutes.

LJ gave him another pack, which Davon dispensed with in short order. At the end of his first days work, Davon had $750 in dollar bills. It was more cash than he had seen before. He was allowed to keep $75. Walking back to Bennett Place, Davon felt a sense of exhilaration.

Over the summer, as Davons shoebox savings grew, he couldnt resist the Jordans, deluding himself that they would somehow escape notice at home. But one night, when he was sitting in the living room talking on the phone, his mother Tonya overheard him bragging about the sneakers.

Davon, where did you get these shoes from? Tonya asked him.

I got them from Bunk, he answered, without skipping a beat. His father had got out of jail the previous year, and came around every few days.

Tonya didnt believe him. She called Bunk, and he came over the next day to take the shoes away and give Davon a beating. He warned Davon to stay off the streets. But Davon was back on Pennsylvania Avenue the very next day. He was hooked on the money he was making. A few weeks later, he packed up his things and left home.

As he built up a reputation for hard work, Davons boss gave him more drugs to sell and his earnings went up to more than $500 a day. He had moved into the apartment building where hed been selling drugs, living with an addict named Lisa who let him stay in a spare bedroom in exchange for her daily fix of crack. At night, he would lie on the floor of his bare room, longing for the comfort of the bed he had left behind at Normas house. Sometimes, staring out of the window, he would feel so overcome by loneliness that he would break down and cry.

One afternoon in August 2000, Davon was caught selling drugs by police. He felt a tingle of excitement as he was marched into a police van. He would finally be able to brag about having been to jail. The price of this glory would be minimal, too: as a minor, he expected to be let off lightly.

Davon was released later that day, returning home with his mother. Over the next few days, he mulled over whether to return to Pennsylvania Avenue. He didnt want to go to prison and decided he was better off going to school, which was about to reopen after the summer break. He was also concerned about Norma, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

From the very first day of school, Davon felt a restlessness that quickly transformed into a yearning for his old life. At school, the popular kids were much better dressed than he was. The girls he liked paid him no attention. Davon felt he had taken a big step down in status.

Police on patrol in Baltimore. Photograph: Rob Carr/AP

Frustrated, he decided to dip his toe back into the drug business. After school let out in the afternoon, he would go over to a street three blocks from Bennett Place and hustle for a couple of hours before coming home. By the winter, he had saved enough money to buy his first car, an old Grand Marquis. He didnt want Tonya or Norma to see it, so he parked it a few blocks away and walked the rest of the way home.

Throughout the summer and autumn of 2001, Normas health worsened. She would spend most of her time in bed. One day in November, after Davon had started in 10th grade, he went into Normas bedroom to check on her. She looked like she was napping, but he touched her, and she was cold.

Two years later, Davon lost another family member, when his father was shot in a revenge killing. That night, for the first time in his life, Davon got drunk. Sitting by himself, he wept uncontrollably, although he would never quite understand why he felt so much grief over the loss of a father who had barely been present in his life.

By this point, Davon had long since quit school and his drug-dealing career was taking off. He had seen smalltime dealers in his neighbourhood remain stuck at the bottom of the pyramid, and he hustled day and night to move up. Once he realised there was more money to be made from selling heroin than crack, he branched out into a neighbourhood west of Bennett Place. He was making more than $1,500 a day.

When Davon was arrested and let off by the narcotics detective William King in the summer of 2004, he had no idea what King wanted. Now, weeks later, sitting in the back of Kings pickup truck, he silently took in Kings compliment on how he did business, trying to divine Kings intentions. He wasnt used to hearing praise from a cop.

Softly spoken and reserved, King did not have the kind of intimidating presence that some of his colleagues did. But after joining Baltimores narcotics squad in the late 1990s, he had quickly gained respect for his skill at cultivating informants and collecting intelligence. King usually worked with a partner named Antonio Murray, who was shorter and stockier in physique, and more aggressive. The duo were feared by drug dealers, who knew that King and Murray didnt mind bending the rules if it suited them.

After driving around for a few minutes, going nowhere in particular, King finally came to the point. If Davon could tell him where other dealers in the area were hiding their stash, he would raid them. So far, it sounded exactly like what Davon had been worrying about the detective wanted him to be an informant. But King went on. After the raids, he would turn only some of the confiscated drugs over to the authorities. The rest he would sell to Davon wholesale, at a price significantly lower than the market rate.

Davon studied Kings face in the rear view mirror. Was this a set up? He saw nothing in Kings expression to make him doubt that the proposition was serious. As the seconds passed, Davon was overcome with the giddy realisation that if this arrangement actually worked out, it could catapult him into the stratosphere of Baltimores drug trade.

Absolutely, Davon said finally. Absolutely.

A few days later, Davon got a phone call from King telling him to come to the parking lot of a McDonalds in east Baltimore. When Davon arrived, he recognised Kings black SUV. He had expected King to be alone but his partner, Murray, was in the car, too.

In the back of the truck were four or five boxes, filled with plastic bags of marijuana. There were four different grades, King told him, 5kg (12lb) in all. King wanted to know if Davon could take the marijuana and wholesale it.

Ive got to advertise it first, Davon said. Ill need a sample.

Davon left the parking lot with four Ziploc bags containing the different kinds of weed, and told King that he would call him. He met with a dealer in his neighbourhood, and they settled on a price of $12,000 for all of it. A couple of days later, the dealer brought the cash over to Davons house, handing it to him in the presence of Tonya, who had long given up on trying to stop her son from selling drugs.

Once again, Davon met King and Murray at the McDonalds. He had negotiated them down to a purchase price of $7,000 for the drugs. Davon transferred the boxes from the back of the SUV into his car, and drove out of the parking lot, experiencing a sense of security he had never imagined he would feel under the gaze of two police officers.

Davon Mayer between the business centre and the Rite Aid where he met Detective King for the first time. Photograph: JM Giordano for the Guardian

In the weeks following the marijuana deal, King began calling Davon every few days. They would meet at the Rite Aide parking lot, across from the western district police station. King would hand Davon whatever drugs he and Murray had confiscated typically crack or heroin, occasionally marijuana. Davon would take the drugs back to Bennett Place or Pennsylvania Avenue and offload them as quickly as he could.

Davon could usually guess who King and Murray had seized particular batches from. He had been in the business long enough to know which dealers were selling what line of vials the red tops, purple tops, green tops, blue tops. To reduce the risk of being linked to King and Murray, Davon would repackage the drugs before selling them.

Once the drugs were sold, he would text King to let him know that he was coming over to deliver the money. Within weeks, both of them had got so comfortable with the arrangement that there were times when they didnt even meet in person. Davon would simply walk over to the parking lot, get into the unlocked SUV and drop off money for King, or collect the drugs King had left for him while King worked his shift at the police station less than 200 yards away.

King was not a man of expensive tastes, but he was bad at managing his money. By the middle of 2004, even with the cash that was rolling in from the secret venture that he and Murray were running on the side, King fell behind on the monthly payment toward his SUV. By comparison, Davons finances were remarkably robust. He sensed an undertone of jealousy in the comments King made when he showed up wearing a new shirt or a new pair of shoes. Somebodys looking good these days, King would say.

Toward the end of the summer, King became desperate to make more money. He and Murray were not having as much luck as before in making seizures, as their raids had already put some smaller dealers, the softer targets, out of business. They began to turn up the heat on Davon, secretly keeping track of who he was meeting with. They often showed him pictures of dealers that they knew to be among his friends and associates.

Do you know this guy? King asked one day about a particular dealer.

Yeah, Davon answered uneasily.

Well, I want him, King said.

I cant help you with that, Davon replied.

Well, when they go down, youll go down with them. And we cant do nothing to help you, King told him.

Davon had entered into the partnership believing it was a deal between equals. The veiled threats from King broke that illusion. The difference between a drug dealer like himself and a pair of drug-dealing cops, he realised, was that they could operate with impunity where he couldnt. When King and Murray began actively targeting Davons friends in the drug world, he interpreted it as a warning.

Things were about to get worse. One autumn evening, police picked Davon up as part of a street sweep operation a few blocks from Bennett Place. He was taken to the western district police station, where he found himself in an interrogation room with King. The detective looked at him with an even gaze, as if he were facing a stranger.

You want to stop yourself from going down with the others? King asked. You will tell us who the bosses are. Tell us whos who here and whats going on.

I cant help you with that, Davon said.

Davon was released without charge, but Kings threat could not have been any clearer.

When he got home, Davon began looking for a way to overcome the sense of powerlessness he had experienced. Not long after, he looked up the website for the FBIs Baltimore field office. Over the following days, he called the number a few times but always hung up at the last minute, worried about the possible consequences for himself if he reported the matter to the FBI. Turning it over in his mind, he finally concluded that the legal risk he faced would be minimal because he was 17 still a minor.

He called the number again. This time, he didnt hang up.

One day in November, Davon approached a silver Buick parked in Lexington Terrace, a neighbourhood of housing projects and row houses similar to his own. A tall FBI agent named Richard Wolf was sitting inside with a colleague, the only two white faces on the street. Davon glanced at them through the window and climbed on to the back seat.

Davon told the agents how he had been recruited by King and what he had been doing for the cop since the summer. Wolf wanted to know why he had decided to turn on his former partners. I dont trust King, Davon said. He was worried that the detective could put him in jail whenever he pleased, if Davon didnt do his bidding. And there was another reason he had contacted the FBI, he explained. He wanted to get out of selling drugs for the sake of his newborn daughter. Becoming an informant, he reasoned, could give him a safe exit from the world of dealing.

Wolf was struck by how self-assured Davon was. As a special agent, he knew it often took some coaxing to help whistleblowers and informants overcome their nervousness. But Davon didnt seem nervous at all. Wolf proceeded to lay down a condition: Davon would be paid to help the FBI develop a case against King and Murray, but he would have to stop hustling. If he got caught dealing drugs while working as an informant, he could face federal charges. Davon nodded.

Every year, the FBI investigates dozens of complaints of corruption by public employees. Since turf battles between the FBI and local law enforcement agencies around the country are not uncommon, federal agents tasked with investigating police officers have to be especially careful about pursuing charges of wrongdoing, lest they be perceived as pushing a hidden political agenda. The agents must also restrict knowledge of their investigation to an unusually small circle, since a cop, especially a guilty one, would be more likely to sniff out an ongoing probe and move to cover their tracks. Wolf, who was joined by a fellow agent named Wendy Munoz, was keenly aware of these sensitivities as he followed up on the information Davon had provided.

The first step toward building the case was to collect evidence of a drug deal between King and Davon. It was Davon who came up with the plan. He would tip King off to a stash of crack hidden in an alley off Bennett Place, enabling King to confiscate the stash and give it to Davon to sell. But this time the crack would have to be fake, since the FBI couldnt knowingly allow real drugs to be exchanged for money.

Through a Baltimore police sergeant, Wolf got hold of a recipe for baking a fake crack pie, which involved mixing Anbesol, the pain-relief medication, with baking soda and water, and heating it in the microwave. The resulting product was meant to have the yellowish colour and the grainy texture of crack. But when Wolf and Munoz attempted the recipe, in the FBIs office kitchen, the results left something to be desired. What they had made looked nothing like crack.

Wolf called the sergeant again to tell him, with some embarrassment, that the recipe hadnt worked. The sergeant gave him an easier alternative: macadamia nuts. Wolf went out and bought a bag of macadamias from the store, and Munoz spent hours splitting them into slivers with her fingernails. The agents made up 160 yellow plastic baggies and showed them to Davon, who gave his enthusiastic approval. In casual handling, he said, the bags could easily pass off as the real thing.

Drugs and cash seized by Baltimore police. Photograph: Rob Carr/AP

A week later, on 30 December 2004, the agents met Davon again. He put the bags of fake crack in a McDonalds paper bag and stashed it in the alley. At 11.50am, King parked his car near Bennett Place, entered the alley and phoned Davon, who guided him to the stash. Davon and the agents heard rustling noises as King searched. I got it, he said, finally. I got it.

Shortly after noon, Davon walked over from Wolfs car to meet King at the Rite Aid parking lot, across from the police station. In his trouser pocket was a digital recorder. King handed him the McDonalds bag. He wanted the crack sold as quickly as possible. Need some money, King said.

A few hours later, Davon met up with the agents again and gave them the bag. Wolf gave him $750, all in crumpled singles and five- and 10-dollar bills, as would be expected if the money had come from peddling crack on the street. Near the bottom of each bill, Wolf had scribbled his initials RJW with an ultraviolet pen. Davon gave King another call.

I got that dough, he said.

You for real? King said, surprised that the crack had sold so quickly.

The shit jumped off, Davon said.

Minutes later, he met up with King and delivered the cash.

By mid-February, the FBI had received court authorisation to tap King and Murrays phones. From the calls, the FBI agents could deduce that the detectives were forcing dealers they nabbed into their vehicle and, after talking to them, letting them out. But Wolf and Munoz had no evidence of what was transpiring inside the Chevrolet Lumina. They needed a microphone in the car.

One night in late March, after King and Murray had ended their shift, leaving the Lumina in the Rite Aid parking lot by the police station, FBI agents drove up in an identical Lumina and parked it next to King and Murrays vehicle. Next, they swiftly unlocked King and Murrays and drove it away, leaving the decoy in place. To a casual observer inside the police station, which the agents knew was staffed 24 hours a day, nothing would have looked amiss. A couple of hours later, the agents brought King and Murrays car back to the lot now rigged with microphones and GPS trackers and drove away the stand-in car.

Now the FBI began listening in on conversations King and Murray were having with dealers picked up from the street. Some of the dealers appeared to know what to expect, thanks to the reputation the cops had earned. Threatened with arrest, the dealers surrendered their cash and drugs meekly, sometimes pleading to get a few dollars back.

By early May 2005, Wolf and Munoz along with other officials were convinced they had enough evidence to wrap up the investigation. Later that month, the FBI invited King and Murrays squad to their office for a meeting whose stated goal was to form a taskforce aimed at fighting drugs in Baltimore. As soon as King and Murray got there, agents put them in handcuffs and informed them that they were being arrested on federal drug charges. In separate interviews with the two men, agents played back recordings of the some of the incriminating phone calls. King listened, crestfallen. I really think I should have my attorney, he said, nervously. Dont you think I should have my attorney?

When the case went to trial in March 2006, Davon was one of the first witnesses to take the stand. King and Murray watched from across the courtroom as Davon described how their partnership began and what he did to enable the FBIs sting operation. Up to that moment, Davon hadnt shared the secret of his collaboration with anybody, not even his girlfriend, Keisha.

After word got out about his appearance in court, the FBI moved Davon to a hotel in a suburb of Baltimore for his own safety. He got threatening phone calls. Keisha was stopped on the street by gang members. Tell him were going to kill him, they said. Even Tonya, who was still living at Bennett Place, was angry that her son had helped the feds. He had violated a sacrosanct rule of where he had grown up: you never work with the police, because law enforcement can never be your friend.

As the trial proceeded, the evidence against King and Murray mounted. Since the duo were carrying police-issued guns while shaking down dealers for drugs and cash, the jury found them guilty on multiple counts of armed robbery, in addition to several other counts of extortion and possession of drugs with intent to distribute. The judge sentenced the men to a combined 454 years in prison.

Throughout the investigation and the run-up to the trial, Davon had not thought much about what would happen after it was all over. He had vaguely imagined getting a lot more help from the government, taking his cue from movies in which the FBI relocated witnesses and bought them houses. The reality was somewhat different. After the trial ended, the FBI helped Davon to move into a rental apartment, giving him $1,500 to put down as a deposit. As the case was over, Wolf explained to Davon, the bureau could no longer justify paying him as an informant.

He was now on his own, without much cash to support himself. At one point, he had made a substantial amount of money dealing drugs, but he had ultimately squandered it, and now had nothing to show for the drug-dealing career he had had: no house, car or significant savings.

Davon Mayer on the steps of his old home in west Baltimore Photograph: JM Giordano for the Guardian

Davons girlfriend, Keisha, worked for the county government and had a daughter from a previous relationship. Davon didnt want to be financially dependent on her, and he eventually found work at a Wal-Mart, making $9 an hour unloading trucks at the stores warehouse. After all those years of making quick money, the backbreaking labour was an unpleasant dose of reality. The inside of the trucks felt like an oven. The Wal-Mart was more than 20 miles from where he lived, and since he no longer had a car, he had to pay an acquaintance a few dollars a day to take him to work. He had to ask Keisha to pick him up at the end of his shift. It felt humiliating. Of the $1,300 or so he made a month, more than $1,000 went toward paying rent and bills. How do people survive off of this? he asked Keisha.

As the months passed, he felt his patience for this new way of life depleting. The only way out, Davon decided, was to get back into hustling. But he had no capital to invest and there was no way anybody would front him drugs.

Bit by bit, he saved up a few hundred dollars. Then he called his grandfather, Ford, who reluctantly helped him re-establish contact with a couple of suppliers. Davon began selling to dealers who had bought from him before but didnt know his real name. Within weeks, he was back to making $300-$400 for work that took no more than a few minutes. Shortly after, he quit working at Wal-Mart. The job was slowing down the hustle, he told me.

When the lease on his apartment ended, he moved in with Keisha, but he kept her in the dark about the extent to which he had resumed his drug dealing. The black hole had pulled him back in.

In January 2009, Keisha and Davon had a baby girl, who they named Daylyn. Up until this point, Keisha had downplayed the consequences of his drug dealing in her mind, accepting it as something he simply couldnt get out of. But now, after having become the mother of his child, and after Davon had another close call with the police, she gave him an ultimatum. You have to make a choice, she said. The streets or family. You cant have both.

Davon had already lost his grandmother Norma, and his mother had died earlier that year. The only family he had left was Keisha. He agreed to give up his drug dealing. Over the next year-and-a-half, Davon began making a small income by working at bars and giving haircuts on the side. He and Keisha divided the household expenses down the middle. The house was in Keishas name; Davon paid her a part of the mortgage in the form of rent. Then, one day in the fall of 2011, after weeks of growing increasingly distant and quiet, he told Keisha he didnt have the money that month.

What happened to your paycheck? You just got paid, she asked. He admitted that he had given the money to a dealer, but the guy had been arrested. The money was gone.

Keisha was furious. She was convinced that Davon was incapable of shaking his addiction to the easy money that drug dealing brought. Im not going to live like this anymore, she said. She told him he was going to have to find another place to live. Davon knew that it wasnt an empty threat. He had to make a lasting change.

A week before Thanksgiving in 2011, I met up with Davon at a mall in Towson, Maryland, about 25 miles from Baltimore. I had made contact with him earlier that year after learning about the King and Murray investigation, which had left me wondering how things had turned out for him since. When I made my way through a throng of holiday shoppers into the restaurant, Davon rose from the table where he was seated with Keisha and Daylyn, and greeted me with a handshake, flashing a grin that revealed two gleaming gold teeth. Although he was nearing his 26th birthday, he still looked boyish.

He described how poor he felt now every time he walked into a mall with Keisha. I used to spend $1,000 at a mall in the blink of an eye, he said. He ruminated about how things might have turned out if he had chosen to continue working with King and Murray instead of going to the FBI. I know if I had chosen to go down the path that I was on, and if I werent in jail right now, I would be at the top of the game, he told me. I would be untouchable right now.

We stayed in touch over the following months, and in March 2012, Davon got a job with a company specialising in lead and asbestos abatement. The work was gruelling but Davon seemed happy. But keeping the past at bay had not been easy, he told me one day that spring when we met up for lunch at a mall in Columbia. Some of his old friends kept asking him to join them. I get offers all the time, he said. Because I still know guys who are pretty high up. They think that I know how to avoid a lot of stuff with the police. That I got some kind of deal. His bond with both his daughters had been growing stronger each day, he told me. Thats what kept him straight.

Reporters are supposed to stay neutral about their subjects, but the more I got to know Davon, the more I slipped into the role of a supportive confidante. As we continued to meet over the next two years, I began rooting for his success, not least because I wanted to see his story end in redemption and hope rather than failure. He would call me every few weeks to share his dreams of starting his own business one day.

When I was at the beach on Memorial Day weekend in 2013, he called me to tell me that his cousin and that cousins one-year-old child had been murdered in downtown Baltimore. He was immensely troubled by this news. A few months later, Keisha called me to tell me that Davon had suffered a panic attack. He had called her from the highway crying hysterically and saying that he was lost. He had managed to drive to the nearest hospital, which transferred him to a psychiatric ward.

When Davon was released three days later, his mental health was still fragile. He often called me for support, and I worried that he would unravel. I urged him to look into college. He passed a test for admission into preparation classes for a high-school equivalency qualification from Baltimore City Community College. Davon was short of money, and despite knowing that I was about to breach the barrier that is supposed to always keep a reporter separate from his subject, I paid the $80 fee he needed to register in the fall.

After he began attending class, he returned to his optimistic self. In December, I lent him $150 so that he could take his exams. He scored one of the highest in his class, and sent me a joyous text in January to say that he had been accepted into the ITT Technical Institute in Baltimore county to pursue an associate degree in network systems administration. While taking courses toward that degree over the next year, he began working as a contractor specialising in hooking up internet cables and other infrastructure for computer networks at government departments and private businesses. For the first time in his life, he had what he saw as a viable career.

In our conversations over the past two years, during which Davon continued to thrive, we had occasion to reflect on his lifes arc. The endless hours he spent telling me about his childhood and teenage years appeared to have given him an understanding of his story that he had never had before an appreciation of the complex interplay between the circumstances he found himself in at various points in his life and the choices he had made along the way. He might not have become a drug dealer if he hadnt grown up on Bennett Place. Nor would he have considered giving up that career if circumstances hadnt led him to become an FBI informant. Yet, without Keisha to hold him to account and to a lesser extent, my desire to tell a story I had always imagined to be one of redemption he could have easily slipped back into the black hole. The more perspective he gained about his own journey, the more he realised how impossible it was for many with his kind of background to climb out of their situation.

One morning not long ago, Davon took time out to give me a tour of his old neighbourhood. We walked down Bennett Place, past boarded-up houses. The sidewalks were deserted, and there were no signs of drug activity anywhere. We sat on the steps of a townhouse a couple of doors down from the one he had grown up in. It saddened him to think that there were so many like him on these streets who had suffered what he had but didnt have a way out.

I hate it when people say you have a choice, he said. It angers me. What choice do you have when your mother is out prostituting herself to feed her drug habit and your father is out murdering people?

We walked toward my car. He turned back to take another look at his grandfathers townhouse. Thats our house, he said. His plan was to buy it and turn it into a safe space for teenagers, off the streets. It would just be for the community, he said. You dont have a place to stay? You can come here. That would make my grandmother proud.

Main photograph: JM Giordano for the Guardian

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‘A white girl had to die for people to pay attention’: Heather Heyer’s mother on hate in the US

Heyer was killed when a car plowed into a crowd of counter-protesters after a white supremacist rally in Virginia now her mother has started a foundation

Recently, someone sent Susan Bro a T-shirt and a stack of bumper stickers that read Just be nice. She gave the shirt to her mother, who had always told her that: be nice. Bro has no interest in being nice, and she has no interest, just now, in forgiveness. Her 32-year-old daughter, Heather Heyer, was killed seven weeks ago when a car plowed into a crowd of counter-protesters after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Nineteen other people were injured. The man charged with Heathers murder was a 20-year-old from Ohio who had demonstrated that day alongside a white nationalist group and had, a former teacher recalled, a longstanding fascination with Hitler.

At Heathers funeral, Bro refused to let any politicians speak. When it was her turn to address the crowd, I could have driven it to hate and vengeance, and I could have driven it to understanding and love and forgiveness and sweetness and light. And neither of those was what I wanted to say.

They tried to kill my child to shut her up, she said at the funeral. Well, guess what: you just magnified her.

After Donald Trump repeatedly blamed both sides for the violence in Charlottesville, Bro announced on Good Morning America, Im not talking to the president. You cant wash this one away by shaking my hand and saying Im sorry.

Think before you speak, she told the president of the United States.

Im just a waitress

Heather had been the kind of American who showed up often in articles about Trumps political rise: the great-granddaughter of coalminers, she had grown up living in a trailer in rural Virginia, in a family that has always, our entire lives, been on the bottom end of the middle class, with not much hope of rising above that, Bro said. To us, middle class is working class.

The school Heather attended, where her mother also worked, was overwhelmingly white, only 4% black, 1% Hispanic and less than 1% other races, Bro recalls. Heather had struggled to graduate from high school and had never gone to college. She had lived at home with her mother, clashing with her frequently, into her early 20s, and then worked as a waitress and bartender, before getting a job in 2012 working with bankruptcy clients as a paralegal. Five years into this job, she had not yet fully accepted that she might have career success. When she made a typo, or when a law firm colleagues college fraternity brother asked her out, she would say, reflexively, Im just a waitress.

Heather had been afraid of what Trumps political rise meant for America, and she had paid attention to him, long before her supervisor, a man who had studied political science, had taken him seriously. She was passionate about injustice, bristling when clients acted surprised or skeptical that the highly credentialed man running her bankruptcy division was black, and breaking down into tears of fury when a local sheriffs office posted on Facebook about its public seminar on the Muslim religion called Understanding the Threat.

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Maryam Mirzakhani, first woman to win mathematics’ Fields medal, dies at 40

Stanford professor, who was awarded the prestigious prize in 2014, had suffered breast cancer

Maryam Mirzakhani, a Stanford University professor who was the first and only woman to win the prestigious Fields medal in mathematics, has died. She was 40.

Mirzakhani, who had breast cancer, died on Saturday, the university said. It did not indicate where she died.

In 2014, Mirzakhani was one of four winners of the Fields medal, which is presented every four years and is considered the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel prize. She was named for her work on complex geometry and dynamic systems.

Mirzakhani specialized in theoretical mathematics that read like a foreign language by those outside of mathematics: moduli spaces, Teichmller theory, hyperbolic geometry, Ergodic theory and symplectic geometry, the Stanford press announcement said.

Mastering these approaches allowed Mirzakhani to pursue her fascination for describing the geometric and dynamic complexities of curved surfaces spheres, doughnut shapes and even amoebas in as great detail as possible.

Her work had implications in fields ranging from cryptography to the theoretical physics of how the universe came to exist, the university said.

Mirzakhani was born in Tehran and studied there and at Harvard. She joined Stanford as a mathematics professor in 2008. Irans president, Hassan Rouhani, issued a statement praising Mirzakhani.

The grievous passing of Maryam Mirzakhani, the eminent Iranian and world-renowned mathematician, is very much heart-rending, Rouhani said in a message that was reported by the Tehran Times.

Irans foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said her death pained all Iranians, the newspaper reported.

The news of young Iranian genius and math professor Maryam Mirzakhanis passing has brought a deep pang of sorrow to me and all Iranians who are proud of their eminent and distinguished scientists, Zarif posted in Farsi on his Instagram account.

I do offer my heartfelt condolences upon the passing of this lady scientist to all Iranians worldwide, her grieving family and the scientific community.

Mirzakhani originally dreamed of becoming a writer but then shifted to mathematics. When she was working, she would doodle on sheets of paper and scribble formulas on the edges of her drawings, leading her daughter to describe the work as painting, the Stanford statement said.

Mirzakhani once described her work as like being lost in a jungle and trying to use all the knowledge that you can gather to come up with some new tricks, and with some luck you might find a way out.

Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne said Mirzakhani was a brilliant theorist who made enduring contributions and inspired thousands of women to pursue math and science.

Mirzakhani is survived by her husband, Jan Vondrk, and daughter, Anahita.

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Georgia special election: Republican Karen Handel beats Jon Ossoff in runoff

An energized Republican base kept Ossoff from accumulating a significant lead among early voters and doomed the hopes of the anti-Trump activists

Democrats fell short of a special election victory yet again on Tuesday when Jon Ossoff, long the best hope of Democrats to win a special election in the Trump administration, suffered a narrow loss to Republican Karen Handel in the Sixth Congressional District.

The race was the latest in a series of special elections in Republican seats where Democrats managed to deliver moral victories rather than actual victories as they proved unable to notch a major electoral win in the Trump administration.

With 100% of precincts reporting, Handel had 52.7% and Ossoff had 47.3%.

Sporadic downpours and flash flood warnings helped to put a damper on Democratic turnout in base precincts and on the hopes of progressives to thwart Republican efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Combined with an energized Republican base that kept Ossoff from accumulating a significant lead among early voters, it doomed the hopes of the anti-Trump activists who made the first time Democratic candidate a minor political celebrity.

The runoff came after a first round of voting in April where Ossoff won just over 48% of the vote and Handel finished second in a splintered Republican field with just under 20% of the vote. However, Ossoff struggled to match that total as Handel consolidated the Republican vote in a traditionally conservative district in the northern suburbs of Atlanta andended up falling a percentage point short of his much hyped performance in the first round of voting.

Trump took to Twitter to hail the result as a personal victory Thank you @FoxNews Huge win for President Trump and GOP in Georgia Congressional Special Election.

The seat had been vacated by Tom Price when the former congressman joined Trumps cabinet to become secretary of health and human services and previously held by Republican stalwarts like Senator Johnny Isakson and former speaker Newt Gingrich. Although Price won by 23% in 2016, Donald Trump only narrowly won this wealthy, well-educated district by just over 1%.

Trumps narrow win sparked optimism among Democrats that the district, where nearly 60% of residents have a college degree, could flip as part of the political realignment around the presidents upset victory in 2016. Roughly $50m ended up being spent by both parties and allied groups in the race as it became the most expensive congressional campaign in the history of the United States.

However, while Democrats had motivated their base and won over skeptical Republicans, the conservative slant of district proved too much even for the nearly unprecedented resources that Democrats invested in the race, even flying in volunteers for last minute doorknocking as local television stations had been saturated by 30-second advertisements.

The two candidates took different tones in their election night speeches after the race was called. Ossoff, speaking to a distraught crowd in a packed ballroom, cast the race in historical terms. As darkness has crept across this planet you have provided a beacon of hope to people in Georgia and people in around the world, Ossoff told attendees. He cast the race in broader metaphysical terms. The fight goes on, hope is still alive, said Ossoff.

In contrast, Handel gave a far more traditional speech. She mentioned the obligation that came with being the first Republican woman elected to Congress from the great state of Georgia and cast herself an inspirational story, telling attendees anything is possible with hard work, inspiration, grit and people that believe in you. Handel also touched on policy priorities like finishing the drill on health care and lowering taxes including repeal of the estate tax.

Although the race had been cast a referendum on Trump an opinion the President seemed to endorse after the result had been reported both candidates awkwardly danced around his looming presence on the campaign trail. At Handels campaign events, Trumps name went unmentioned by the candidate and introductory speakers. Instead, there was constant refrain of attack on Ossoff for his ties to House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and praise for previous holders of the seat like Price and Gingrich. Ossoff was regularly bashed for the amount of money he raised out of state, for having San Francisco values and, particularly, for the fact that he did not actually live in the district.

Handel, who suggested in the first televised debate of the campaign that Trump should use Twitter less often, told the Guardian in an interview on Monday that she didnt pay attention to the presidents use of social media. She said I am focused on my campaign, I have precious little time to be on Twitter. Several hours later, her campaign sent out a fundraising email signed by the former secretary of state with the subject line did you see what Trump just tweeted? after the President used his ubiquitous social media account to tout her campaign.

Ossoff has also been measured in his attacks on Trump in a traditionally Republican district albeit one that the president barely won in 2016. Instead, the lanky and measured political neophyte focused on banal and politically non-controversial issues like government waste and turning Atlanta into the Silicon Valley of the South and let the progressive anti-Trump enthusiasm of the Democratic base carry him.

Instead, he has focused on Handels stint as Georgia secretary of state as well as her brief stint with the Susan Komen Race For The Cure, a charity which combats breast cancer, where she led an effort to cut off the organizations funding for Planned Parenthood. The decision sparked a major controversy and funding was eventually restored and Handel had to resign from the non-profit.

In an interview with the Guardian, Ossoff slammed his opponent. Secretary Handels record as secretary of state is extremely weak perhaps because she was too busy preparing her next run for higher office to do her job. She quit her job early to run for higher office, as so many career politicians do. Her last significant private sector experience, her performance also lacked.

The issue of civility and the growing toxic nature of American political culture became an issue late in the race in the aftermath of the shooting of House Minority Whip Steve Scalise. Handel pointed to social media and journalism as reasons for the decline of civility in American society in an interview with the Guardian. Journalism is not journalism any more, said Handel. Ossoff stuck to broader themes, telling the Guardian, this is a deep rooted problem in American politics right now which is going to take work and bipartisan commitment to trying to heal wounds and focus on substance instead of fear mongering and slander.

Nationally, Democrats tried to spin the results. In a statement, Ben Ray Lujan, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said insisted there are more than 70 districts more favorable to Democrats than this deep-red district, and Ossoffs close margin demonstrates the potential for us to compete deep into the battlefield.

However, Republicans took a victory lap as Steve Stivers, the chair of the National Republican Campaign Committee, said in a statement Nancy Pelosi threw the kitchen sink at her, yet Karen still came out on top and ready to fight for Georgia in Congress. For all the Democrats bluster and despite pouring over $30 million into this race, I couldnt be more proud to help keep this seat in Republican hands.

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The week in patriarchy: it’s been yet another blockbuster week of news | Jessica Valenti

Between the Comey testimony and the UK election, weve all been glued to our laptops and televisions. Heres what you might have missed

Between Comey news and UK election news, Im ready to never watch cable television or refresh my Twitter page ever again. As has been the case these last few months, there seems no end in sight to newly-and-daily breaking news.

But what I cant stop thinking about is Trumps reaction to the attack on London that left eight people dead. How in a moment when real leaders were urging calm, the US president was attempting to capitalize on a terror attack for his own racist legislation, and attacking the London mayor for … well, doing his job.

Just when you think youve bottomed out on the shame you can feel for this president, he reminds you that there is seemingly no end to how low he will go.

Glass Half Full

With all the surprises of the last few days, dont let this one sneak by you: a record number of women were elected in the UK last night, over 200. While the gender breakdown in parliament still needs work lets take this one as a win.

What Im RTing

Ava DuVernay (@ava)

Girl, yes. *takes off earrings*

June 4, 2017

Anne Helen Petersen (@annehelen)

50 confirmed incidents across 26 states of students using Trump’s words to bully other children:

June 6, 2017

Christopher Hayes (@chrislhayes)

Kinda looks like the President stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from a charity for kids with cancer?

June 6, 2017

Maxine Waters (@MaxineWaters)

So Comey told Jeff Sessions he didn’t want to be alone with Trump. Women across the country can relate.

June 7, 2017

Who Im reading

Thandie Newton on why we dont just need more black women in the movies, we need intersectionality; Rebecca Onion at Slate on new data showing how sexism impacted the US presidential election and Nell Scovell at W magazine on the uncomfortable similarities between the way Comey described Trump, and how women describe harassers.

What Im writing

Have you seen Wonder Woman yet? If not, get there and get ready to cry. (Though maybe dont post about it on Twitter.)

How outraged I am

After watching this incredible video of a breast cancer survivor who went to Planned Parenthood when she felt a lump, Im at a full 10 out of 10 thinking about the cruelty of those who would defund the organization.

How Im making it through this week

Reading a great new novel by Natalka Burian a welcome and well-written escape that I desperately needed.

Sign up for The Week in Patriarchy, Jessica Valentis weekly email newsletter, which tracks whats happening in the world of feminism and sexism, from politics to pop culture.

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Painless cancer detection could become routine thanks to ‘liquid biopsies’

Biopsies are seen as the best way of detecting the illness but they have traditionally often required invasive techniques

Researchers are developing tests that could make cancer detection so painless that it becomes part of routine check-ups, experts said, as new developments in such liquid biopsy technology were presented at the worlds largest cancer conference in Chicago this weekend.

Collecting tumor tissue through biopsies is considered the gold standard for diagnosing and treating cancer. However, necessary surgery is often invasive and sometimes unsuccessful.

That has fueled interest in technology that uses blood samples to examine bits of DNA shed into the bloodstream by tumors. The hope, researchers say, is to save patients the pain of surgery, monitor tumor growth to tailor treatment, and ultimately to save lives.

Its fair to say that if you could detect all cancers while they are still localized, you could diminish cancer deaths by 90%, said Dr Bert Vogelstein, a professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who co-authored a study presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) in Chicago.

But thats a theoretical figure. The available data suggests that its going to take quite a while, and there are a lot of obstacles to overcome.

Like all cells, cancerous cells shed DNA as they die. Tests in development examine these bits of DNA in the bloodstream, finding mutations in already diagnosed cancers or, experts hope, diagnosing cancer early.

Part of the challenge in developing such tests is scale. Pieces of DNA represent a tiny portion of a blood sample. Pieces of cancer DNA represent an even tinier sliver of all the DNA present in blood.

Pieces of genetic material, called cell-free DNA, are found in blood plasma. But plasma contains cell-free DNA from all over the body not just cancer. In some cases, cell-free DNA from cancer represents just 0.1% of all cell-free DNA, new research has found. That makes the search a needle in a haystack.

One of the studies presented at ASCO sequenced 100 times more data than ever before. Using such high-intensity sequencing, researchers from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center scanned regions of the genome up to 60,000 times to look for 508 specific genes.

Dr Pedram Razavi and his research team collected blood samples from 124 patients with metastatic breast, non-small cell lung or prostate cancer. Biopsies were collected to provide a baseline, and researchers also sequenced each patients white blood cells to rule out benign mutations.

In 89% of the patients, researchers identified at least one gene mutation. The highest success rates were for breast cancer patients, in whom researchers were able to find 97% of gene mutations.

Ravazi said simple tests to screen for cancer were a very long way from development, but the new research brought doctors one step closer. This is a promising first step in patients with metastatic DNA, he said, referring to advanced cancer patients.

Another abstract presented at ASCO took the opposite approach. US and Australian researchers at Johns Hopkins and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne screened 119 pancreatic cancer patients for just one mutation found nearly all pancreatic cancers.

Though only four patients had advanced cancer, researchers found cell-free DNA in all of them. In patients with stage two cancer, the largest group, researchers found cell-free DNA in 54.5% of 99 cases. Authors said tests showed promise for screening, and could help guide treatment.

One of the researchers, Peter Gibbs, said he could envision that within five years, people would receive tests that search for about 20 cancer gene mutations.

Its potentially very close by, said Gibbs. The potential impact on screening and prevention is huge.

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Making sounds with Suzanne Ciani, America’s first female synth hero

She was one of the few women working in sound design during the 1970s and here she talks about a long career, from appearing on Letterman to how she ended up making the famous Coke noise

It might not seem so much of a stretch any more, but imagine spending your entire life in a tempestuous relationship with a machine. Not a sleek smartphone or tablet weve seen how that can escalate in Spike Jonzes Her. Instead picture a tapestry of tangled multicoloured wires, knobs and buttons, a bulky modular synthesizer otherwise known as the Buchla. Suzanne Ciani has spent much of her career testing the limits of one of these cumbersome instruments. So dedicated to its oscillating drones, burbles and bleeps did she become that has jokingly referred to the Buchla as her boyfriend. At times that affair was traumatic, she says now, down the phone from her studio in the Californian coastal enclave of Bolinas, sounding like both Marilyn Monroe and a Woodstock hippie. Technologys always very risky you never know when it might break.

Ciani is one of electronic musics earliest but lesser known pioneers, dubbed variously as the diva of the diode and Americas first female synth hero. This weekend shell be one of the recipients of the Moog Innovation Award at Moogfest, the synth brands celebration of electronic music and technology, alongside Devo and Brian Eno. Ciani, however, has been quietly innovating in various fields of music and sound design for nearly half a century. She was one of the few women on the frontline of electronic innovation in the 1970s, a five-time Grammy-nominated recording artist, a pioneer of the new age genre and the first solo female composer to soundtrack a Hollywood film. Brilliantly, she also invented Coca-Colas infamous pop and pour sound effect.

Today, however, she has returned to the Buchla, an instrument that it seems will always have her heart. Ciani was introduced to it by the inventor himself, Don, while she was studying music composition at the University of California in 1970. As the sleevenotes for one of her compilations put it, the Buchla was San Franciscos neck-and-neck contender to New Yorks Moog run by a community of festival freaks and academic acid eaters. Ciani soon established herself as a Buchla buff and moved to New York, when the Soho avant-garde circles were swirling at full tilt and she was living among musicians such as Philip Glass, Vladimir Ussachevsky and Ornette Coleman.

But choosing the Buchla as her other half came with its own unique set of complications. To watch her live performances is to see a graceful choreography of movements and yet the synth itself was bulky, would continually break and took years to get fixed, if it could be fixed at all. Travelling anywhere was particularly hazardous. Something can break on the airline, the luggage handle smashes your machine. You never know if youre going to have what you need to do the performance, says Ciani.

Not only was there all this unpredictability, but Ciani also had a hard time getting people to understand what she was doing in the first place. Electronic music was so alien that it posed a whole new world and language. Her live television performance, to an incredulous-looking David Letterman, in 1980, underlines how, even then, after Kraftwerk, her talents were seen as bizarre. Nobody even understood that the sound was coming out of the machine, it just didnt compute, she says. It was so unknown that the connection couldnt be made. Its like when they say when Columbus came across the ocean, that the Indians didnt even see the ship because they had no concept for ships.

Even the forward-thinking minimal classical milieu of the day didnt get it at first. Ciani sees a link between the emotionally affecting simplicity of her music and theirs but at the time it doesnt sound as if that understanding worked vice versa. In 1974 she met Philip Glass and put her Buchla in his studio for a period. We did electronic lessons for about a month or so, and in the end it just wasnt for him. Other composers were not as receptive. Steve Reich said, You should send all these machines to the moon and make them stay there! she laughs. Its so funny because Steve, in those days, openly hated electronic music instruments. And a couple of years ago I was at a big industry convention and a young fellow comes up to me. Hes an electronic musician, and he says, I think you know my dad? And I just laughed out loud. I said, Its poetic justice, that Steves son is an electronic musician.

As a recording artist, the Buchla also had its limitations. I went to all the record companies and I said, you know, give me a deal, Ciani remembers, and they said, What do you do?, and I said, I play the Buchla, and they say, Whats that?, and I said, Ill show you. But even a studio setup back then couldnt accommodate her Buchla or at least music execs couldnt get their head around the fact that she didnt need a band. They said, Why dont you sing?, Wheres the guitar?, Youre a girl, you know, You must sing, she continues. There was no opening for it, and thats how I got into commercials.

The advertising world, she says, was looking for something new; you want to be on the edge, you want to be different. The fact that they didnt understand it already intrigued them. So she started her own company, Ciani/Musica, which was almost completely unheard of for a female musician in those days. Essentially they did sound design, and much of it has been archived on the compilation Lixiviation on the British independent label Finders Keepers, whove been largely responsible for rereleasing Cianis work and bringing it to a wider audience in recent years. Notably, she added the electronic swoosh sound to Starland Vocal Bands Afternoon Delight and FX for a 1977 disco version of the Star Wars soundtrack, among the odd B-movie horror and kung-fu films.

Photograph: Finders Keepers Records

The noises she created for perhaps her most infamous sound effect, she says, were invented in a matter of minutes. My brain was working at lightning speed in those days, she laughs, of how she came up with Coca Colas signature pop, bubble and fizz. I had been trying to get an appointment with the music director Billy Davis for over a year. He stood me up for the umpteenth time, so I marched over to his studio from his office and they said, You cant disturb him, and I said, He had an appointment with me. I opened the door and I went in. It was brazen. But I was desperate, I was starving. I was in New York living on Canal Street for $75 a month, and I was propelled by hunger, really.

It just so happened that they were working on a Coca-Cola commercial. He said, What do you do?, and I said, I play the Buchla. I make sounds, and he said, Well, can you do something in here?. I dont know what they had in mind, but I said, Yes, I can. He said, What do you need?. I said, I need my Buchla, and he said, Well, go get it. I went and got my Buchla and I came back. I did it right there and then.

Eventually her original, irreplaceable Buchla 200 model broke for good and, unhappy with its subsequent models, Ciani started making piano and acoustic music that would later come to be known as new age. She wasnt bothered by the emerging strains of dance music rattling clubs at the time (I loved to go to Studio 54 in the day, but to make that music, I thought, was a little boring) and instead wanted to explore sounds that had beauty and sensuality. Her debut album, 1982s Seven Waves, was inspired by the femininity of the waveform. To be blunt about this, the male paradigm for sexuality is more that pumping rhythm, she says, referring to electronic styles, and the female paradigm for sensuality was a much slower span. And it was that slow, wave-like form.

But it is the Buchla that has brought her back. Last year Finders Keepers Records rereleased Buchla Concerts 1975, a collection of Cianis original live recordings and she made the collaborative EP, Sunergy, with Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, her latter-day incarnation and fellow Buchla disciple. Ciani is also the subject of an upcoming documentary, A Live In Waves. Don was the one who encouraged Ciani to try her beloved instrument once more. The two had had a fractured relationship she says he used to be a tough cookie and says sweetly, we even had a little lawsuit at one point, of when Don replaced her faulty Buchla with a synth she was less pleased with, and then wouldnt let her return it. But when her recovery from breast cancer in her early 40s brought her back to California, the two reconnected over a shared love of tennis. He said, If you want to get a new system, get it now because somethings going to happen, says Ciani wistfully. She settled on the 200e, a 21st-century rebirth of the 70s classic. I didnt know he was going to sell his company.

When we first speak, Ciani is in good spirits, preparing to go to Burning Man and packing her light-up clothing and butterfly wings. But Don Buchla died soon after, on 14 September 2016, and just a month after a long and ugly lawsuit against the company who bought his Buchla brand in 2012 was dismissed. When we talk again, Ciani is still grieving, but his death has given her shows greater purpose. Im still in that moment, she says of her life without Don. Its become about performing on the Buchla 200-E, I want to communicate the potential for live performance that Don envisioned. My dedication now is to show that you can make music with these live: no samples, no pre-recorded [music], you just go out there and play this non-keyboard instrument.

Besides, she adds, I had a deal with him up in the sky and I said, look, as long as this machine works, Im going to keep playing it, and when it breaks, Ill stop.

If others had as much of a storied career as Ciani, they probably wouldnt bother looking forward to the future, but the resurgent interest in her music and the technology it uses is also what gives her hope. Its interesting to me to see the cycle of things recurring, that the young people are very much in a technological wonderment that we had in the 60s, she says. In the 60s, that new world was aborted to some degree. The idea of a synthesiser was taken over by cultural forces that didnt understand the potential: Oh, you can synthesise the sound of a flute, Can make the sound of a violin?, [there was] this preoccupation with copying existing timbres. I thought it was a dead idea, that we missed the first time around and that who knew when or if it would be revisited?

Today, though, she sees the potential for machine music in line with the futuristic frontiers that herself and Don Buchla once envisioned. In my day I thought we would be where we are now, 30 years ago, she says. I thought electronic music would be everyplace, built into furniture! I designed a sofa where eight people could sit in a circle and everybody could adjust their pitch.

It sounds like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey but for Ciani, every day was living inside that hi-tech headspace. I thought it would be built into homes, because for me it was built in, she says of electronic music. My Buchla was on all the time, and I would walk in [my house] and the sound would greet me, and it would make me feel a certain way, and I thought everybodys going to have this. It didnt happen, and maybe now it is happening. She considers how she is playing Moogfest when she is Team Buchla, the rivalry between east and west coast long dissolved and overtaken by a desire to find a new musical realm together. If it sounds hippyish, perhaps thats because it always has been.

Its a conceptual field now, says Ciani. Rhythm to a higher level of consciousness.

  • Suzanne Ciani plays Moogfest, 18-21 May

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Republican lawmaker key to health bill’s passage lambasted at town hall

Constituents heckle and boo Tom MacArthur, calling him a killer as 500 people gather for New Jersey event: I dont think Ill vote for him again

Tom MacArthur, the New Jersey congressman who has been celebrated in conservative circles for helping pass the Republican healthcare bill, came back down to earth with a bang on Wednesday night when he was booed, heckled and generally chastised during a nearly five-hour town hall meeting.

In Willingboro, hundreds showed up to lambast MacArthur, most fuelled by their congressmans intervention to revive the ailing American Health Care Act (AHCA).

MacArthur was branded a weasel, a killer and an idiot by constituents angry at his amendment to the bill, which would allow states to opt out of rules that protect individuals with pre-existing conditions from being charged more for healthcare coverage. This stipulation proved enough to satisfy the hard-right Freedom Caucus and the bill which would probably see millions of Americans lose their healthcare coverage passed the House on 4 May.

The majority of Republicans who voted for the bill are not holding public events this week, despite being on recess. Those who have dared face voters have been pilloried. Aware of this, MacArthur kicked off his town hall at 6.30pm with a promise to respond to every single question, for as long as it goes. He was still being quizzed by angry residents at 11.20pm.

More than 500 people had gathered outside the Kennedy Center in Willingboro, just across the Delaware river from Philadelphia. It was a lively and loud scene, a number of voters chanting, waving signs and generally causing a ruckus.

Our health matters more than Toms net worth, one banner read. A sign showed a picture of MacArthur with I took your healthcare written on his forehead. Another described MacArthur, a former insurance executive who was elected in 2014, as MacWeasel.

Claudia Storicks, a former nurse who has been on disability for the past two years, had travelled from Pemberton, New Jersey. She has diabetes and charcot foot a weakening of the bones caused by nerve damage and was using an electric scooter. She is insured under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Obama administration legislation the AHCA seeks to replace.

It was the only insurance that I could afford, she said. Ive been able to afford my medication and my doctors visits because Im on the ACA. Otherwise I probably would have lost my house and my foot.

Storicks voted for MacArthur in 2016 hes a businessman and I thought he had a good sense about taxes, she said but now described herself as very angry at the prospect of the ACA being repealed.

That would mean that my diabetes would get out of control, my foot would probably get worse, and Id probably end up in hospital and losing my house.

Medford, New Jersey, resident Jay Wilder, 72, was first in line. He arrived six hours early. Im really worried about pre-existing conditions because I dealt with it when I was going from my job before I had Medicare, he said.

Wilder had had a heart attack and said he couldnt afford healthcare. I just lived without healthcare, hoping that nothing would happen. It was very difficult because when youre 64 years old you start having health issues.

The anger outside the venue set the tone for the event itself. MacArthur walked out to Coldplays A Sky Full of Stars, and to a similarly tepid round of applause from the 250 people who had made it inside. The congressman smiled and offered his hand to a man wearing a green shirt, sitting in the front row. The man kept his arms folded and thrust his head away.

The four hours and 50 minutes that followed were no less hostile. MacArthur had asked constituents not to boo him but that proved to be in vain. People repeatedly told him he had blood on his hands.

A man who had received a kidney transplant feared what would happen to people like him under the AHCA. A resident whose wife had recovered from breast cancer was concerned that she would always have a pre-existing condition and did not want that to determine which state she lived in.

A woman had brought her two young children, one of whom had learning difficulties, and objected to them potentially being placed in a high-risk pool an aspect of MacArthurs amendment designed to assist people with pre-existing conditions, but which could lead to higher health insurance costs.

MacArthurs responses that only 7% of Americans were in the individual market, that people would not lose their insurance (the Congressional Budget Office, in its assessment of an earlier version of the bill, said 24 million would probably do so), and that there are loads of other people who dont agree with you did not placate the crowd.

Nor did his response to repeated chants calling for single-payer healthcare.

Government bureaucrats can be very dangerous when they have power to make decisions on peoples health, MacArthur said, prompting one woman to tell the congressman she would prefer that scenario than someone in an office of an insurance company making the same decisions.

Something was awoke in me

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