What Happened Today: August 24, 2022
Spate of hate crimes against NYC Jews; Philippines ends two-year school shutdown; Banks hit with $1 billion in fines for secret communications
The Big Story
Three separate antisemitic attacks in recent days against members of New York City’s Hasidic community add to the climbing number of hate crimes against the city’s Jewish population. Some footage of the attacks against visibly Jewish men—described by the New York City police department as a “hate crime assault pattern”—have circulated online, though the perpetrators remain at large. On Sunday, two victims were attacked separately by groups of young men, with at least one attacker involved in both incidents. In incidents roughly six hours apart, the victims were sprayed with chemical fire extinguishers; one dodged the fire extinguisher canister hurled at him before he was slapped in the face by an attacker. Monday’s attack involved a man in traditional Jewish clothing being slapped in the face before his attacker fled the scene.
The NYPD Hate Crimes Task Force has taken over the investigations, with an agency spokesperson telling the media this week that “we take these incidents very seriously and will ensure safety for all.” Investigations of alleged hate crimes, at least in New York, rarely result in convictions. Americans Against Antisemitism, a group started by New York assemblyman Dov Hikind that tracks antisemitic crimes, found in a review of 118 crimes of bias perpetrated against Jews in New York since 2018 that only one case led to a hate crime conviction and sentencing. “There are practically no serious consequences to be had or severe punishments to be faced by very violent and hateful criminals,” the report said. More than a third of all New York City’s hate crimes in 2021 were against Jews, according to the NYPD. Currently, the city’s police are investigating who sprayed the word Hitler on a Brooklyn synagogue as well as who smashed the primary window of a synagogue in Borough Park. Both incidents are being treated as hate crimes.
In the Back Pages: Slipping Sanctions on the High Seas
→ One of the longest school shutdowns in the world has now come to an end, as students in the Philippines return to the classroom for the first time in more than two years. Government officials claim that the abundance of caution was the result of the ubiquity of multi-generational homes in the Philippines, where grandparents share space with school-aged children. Critics argue that the Philippines’ strongman president, Rodrigo Duterte, maintained strict lockdown measures as a means of deepening his control over the state, appointing military leaders to run his COVID-19 response team as he cracked down on civil liberties under the auspices of protecting the population. There is agreement, however, that the country’s 28 million schoolchildren have suffered under a policy that will have dire consequences in a country that, prior to the pandemic, already had a 90% illiteracy rate among its 10-year-olds.
→ Good talent is hard to find—especially for rap label executives. Anthony Martini, co-founder of music tech startup Factory New, thought—wrongly, it turns out—that he solved the talent riddle when his team created FN Meka, a so-called digital rapper built with artificial intelligence.
The formulaic end product of “thousands of data points compiled from video games and social media,” the digital rapper and his “lyrical content, chords, melody, tempo, [and] sounds” were meant to be a slick compilation of everything popular in rap right now, Martin said—though the lyrics were rapped by a real, anonymous performer.
Good enough to chalk up 10 million TikTok followers, Meka signed with Capitol Records earlier this year.
That major label deal with Capitol went sour “effective immediately,” Capitol said Tuesday while offering “our deepest apologies to the Black community for our insensitivity in signing this project without asking enough questions about equity and the creative process behind it.”
The backlash was led by activists at Industry Blackout, which described Meka as an “offensive caricature” that was a “direct insult to the Black community and our culture. An amalgamation of gross stereotypes, appropriative mannerisms that derive from Black artists, complete with slurs infused in lyrics.” Though Meka essentially mimicked the performance of (human) artists, the group found the appropriation “disrespectful to real people who face real consequences in real life.”
An Instagram rapper named Kyle The Hooligan said on Wednesday he was the voice behind Meka but was glad to see the digital performer “canceled” because he’d largely been left out of any profits in the deal.
→ Bankers at JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America skirted U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rules about mandated monitoring of their communications, a violation of several SEC laws that will result in more than $1 billion in bank fines. Bankers are required to communicate over official channels and messaging platforms with SEC oversight, but regulators uncovered bankers’ rampant exchange of messages through private emails and on encrypted platforms like WhatsApp, where it would be easier to commit insider trading and other fraud undetected. The SEC has made cracking down on illicit communications a priority under Democratic leadership, and several banks, including Citibank, Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, UBS, and Deutsche Bank, are all at various stages of settling investigations about poor oversight of their employee communications.
→ The Nicaraguan government arrested Bishop Rolando Álvarez on Friday—“the most senior clergyman to be detained in Latin America for political views in decades,” according to The New York Times—as the government escalates its war against dissidents and critics within the Catholic Church. Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, has been squashing dissident speech since he took office 15 years ago, arresting and intimidating media personalities, politicians, journalists, and academics who speak out against his increasingly authoritarian leadership. The Catholic Church, however, had been somewhat protected in this deeply religious country. Now, having consolidated his power across state and public institutions, Ortega is quelling the last bastion of political independence in the country—the church—by making high-level arrests, leaving priests in the country worried that there are undercover officers attending their services.
→ Twitter’s former security executive Peiter Zatko filed a complaint last month with the SEC, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Justice Department—the details of which became public on Tuesday—alleging that he “uncovered extreme, egregious deficiencies by Twitter in every area of his mandate,” from user privacy to high levels of spam on the platform and widespread issues with content moderation. News of the complaint is especially damning for Twitter because it comes less than two months before the company is set to meet Elon Musk in court, with Musk claiming that Twitter is underreporting its fake accounts and is therefore in breach of the $44 billion deal. It also opens another avenue for Congress to explore as its interest grows in regulating Big Tech. “If these claims are accurate,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, “they may show dangerous data privacy and security risks for Twitter users around the world. I will continue investigating this issue and take further steps as needed to get to the bottom of these alarming allegations.”
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→ The Emmett Till Alert System, a new privately funded initiative, will begin notifying Black leaders in Maryland when there are credible hate crimes against Black residents or their property. Named after the 14-year-old boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, the Emmett Till Alert System comes as racially motivated hate crimes in Maryland are on the rise, including numerous bomb threats at three historically Black universities. “Not all hate crimes are investigated,” said Carl Snowden with the Caucus of African American Leaders. “Not all hate crimes are reported, for a variety of reasons. What we are going to do is make sure every hate crime that we're made aware of goes out on this alert system.” Community leaders in Maryland hope their new system serves as a model for other minority groups across the country.
→ As Lake Mead recedes due to the megadrought in the Midwest, all manner of curiosities are being discovered in the newly exposed shoreline; for the fifth time since May, according to the Clark County Office of the Coroner/Medical Examiner, another set of human remains were found. Other objects—guns, a barrel stuffed with a man’s decaying body, sunken boats—have been spotted in recent months in the receding lake, which supplies drinking water to millions of Americans in the Southwest and in California. Now officials are worried not only about these dead bodies but also about the prospect that Lake Mead is receding into a “dead pool,” with the water level getting so low that it cannot flow downriver to the Hoover Dam—a crucial power source in the region.
→ Quote of the Day:
Fredrick Douglass said, ‘I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.’ Boylan’s version: I’ll tell you what I believe if you tell me who else believes it.
Caitlin Flanagan, writing in The Atlantic about Jennifer Finney Boylan’s gallant defense for free expression that was promptly followed by her less gallant apology for it. After adding her name to the famous Harper’s Letter, a 2020 paean to free speech signed by some of the world’s most distinguished writers and scholars, Boylan—a writer and PEN America trustee who is trans—learned that J.K. Rowling, an outspoken gender essentialist, had also signed the letter. “I did not know who else had signed that letter,” Boylan wrote on Twitter. “I thought I was endorsing a well meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming. I did know Chomsky, Steinem, and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company. The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.” Critics were quick to point out that celebrating free speech is about, you know, celebrating free speech—even, or especially, if that freedom allows people to say things you disagree with.
Additional reporting and writing provided by The Scroll’s associate editor, David Sugarman
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Slipping Sanctions on the High Seas
Portside with the superyacht of Russia’s richest man
By Paul du Quenoy
“Yachting—it doesn’t suck,” I wrote to a friend upon departing last month for several weeks of luxurious sailing back and forth across the Aegean. Carefree days unfolded under bright rays tempered by mild sea breezes. My shipmates and I idly speculated about what pleased us most. Was it the azure blue of the clear, gentle water in Santorini’s caldera? Could it have been the endless lunches in friendly tavernas along sun-speckled Greek shores? I’m not sure we ever decided, but our nightly caviar soirees yielded effortlessly to champagne-fueled merriment on deck—a superb escape from our troubled “real world” of searing heat waves, maddening airport meltdowns, and dodgy presidential raids.
Apart from the occasional bouts of doom and gloom delivered via satellite, the only intrusion into our summer idyll arrived in the bustling Turkish port of Marmaris, where our blessed vessel moored alongside a mysterious boat with a steely gray hull. In size and shape, it could have passed for a minor warship in a midsized country’s navy. Its tinted windows added a spectral quality suggesting that the Flying Dutchman still haunted the seas and was clocking in one of the Dutchman’s seven-year reprieves to find true love ashore. Only the ship’s name, Pacific, displayed in understated chrome letters, was the key to learning more. According to the international databases that track superyachts of this caliber, Pacific stretched 280 feet long and had two helipads and a crew of 28 required for full operations. The $150 million vessel belonged to Leonid Mikhelson, who Bloomberg Billionaires Index deemed the richest man in Russia.
Trained as an industrial engineer, Mikhelson specialized in pipeline construction and worked on the Cold War-era Urengoy Pipeline, a major artery that transported Soviet natural gas from Siberian production fields to European markets. Following the collapse of communism, he maneuvered himself into the role of director of a provincial state-owned company that manufactured pipes for energy commerce. In the new Russia’s wild burst of privatizations, Mikhelson quickly parlayed his professional clout and political access into huge personal oil and gas holdings. Aligned with other Russian petro-oligarchs, he brushed up close enough to President Vladimir Putin’s regime that in 2017 the Trump administration placed him on a list of individuals eligible for sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. In April 2022, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, multiple governments issued personal sanctions against him because of his relationship with the Kremlin.
To our great regret, the much-talked-about gospodin Mikhelson did not greet us on board or even poke his head out of his minor warship to say hello, though a set of deck furniture was set up on the pier. All we could observe were the trim figures of Pacific’s bodyguards, toned tough guys clad in nondescript jumpsuits that recalled the faceless flunkies who protect the villains in James Bond films.
The boat’s foreboding secrecy only made us want to learn more. Ever since Putin launched his war against Ukraine, yachts have featured in the forefront of sanctioned properties belonging to those close to the Kremlin. Floating status symbols accessible only to the gilt-edged few, yachts scream wealth and privilege and inspire in punctilious Western bureaucrats feelings of both disgust and envy.
Seizing them suggests putting the hurt on associates of a rogue state’s rulers and gives the impression that Western governments are doing something—anything—to stand up to Russian aggression. Within days of the invasion, several Russian-owned yachts belonging to individuals vulnerable to sanctions sailed to the Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean that claims to have no legal provisions for enforcing international seizure orders. Turkey, which receives half of its natural gas from Russia and relies on Russians for its tourism industry, pled then, as it does now, that it has no choice but to serve as a neutral broker between its NATO allies and Russia. Despite sustained Western pressure, it has declined to enforce sanctions. Mikhelson’s fellow oligarchs Roman Abramovich, Alexander Abramov, Vagit Alekperov, and Dmitri Kamenshchik are also believed to have moved yachts to Turkish waters.
Not everyone facing sanctions could get to those safer locales, however. To date, more than a dozen Russian yachts discovered in less favorable places have been seized. Spain alone has taken at least four of them, including natural resources magnate Viktor Vekselberg’s $90 million Tango. Former deputy prime minister, old KGB hand, and Putin intimate Igor Sechin reportedly lost his $120 million boat, the True Love(Amore Vero), to French authorities, who seized it in April, though a spokesman for Sechin denies any connection to it. In May, oil trader Suleiman Kerimov’s Amadea, a 348-foot wonder that is bigger than Mikhelson’s boat (though with only one helipad), was seized by Fiji at the U.S. government’s request. Despite local legal challenges, its seizure was upheld, and the boat is now docked in San Diego, where the feds plan to auction it off. Italian authorities seized steel and mining magnate Alexei Mordashov’s $71 million Lady M, Gennady Timchenko’s more modest $55 million Lena, and coal and fertilizer titan Andrei Melnichenko’s $577 million masted sailing yacht. (Melnichenko’s other yacht, the $300 million Nord, reportedly made it to the Maldives.) Most spectacularly of all, the Italians also seized the Scheherazade, rumored to be Putin’s personal yacht, which is valued at $700 million, requires a crew of 94, and might very well be equipped with an anti-missile defense system.
Mikhelson’s ability to avoid both sanctions and seizures of his boats might be the most impressive on record. As Russian troops crossed Ukraine’s borders, the Pacific was in the Caribbean, where it was susceptible to seizure as pressure mounted to sanction its Kremlin-linked owner. In the weeks that followed, it sailed more than 7,000 miles to the safety of Turkish waters. Yachts that size generally transmit their locations for safety reasons, but a standard evasion technique, which Mikhelson appears to have used, is simply to turn off the transmission system and “go dark.” This would have been legal in his case, as the international rule only mandates geo-tracking for ships greater than 300 feet in length. Pacific disappeared from view and only became visible again on May 20, when it approached the Canary Islands, likely to refuel, before vanishing again. It was first spotted approaching Turkey in early June and seems to have stayed put there ever since. Sadly, it could not join us in Greece.
Paul du Quenoy is the President of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute.